Patients Ask: Why Does My Back Hurt When Taking a Deep Breath?

 A woman in a sweater sits on a bed while holding back due to pain when taking a deep breath.

Breathing is one of the most autonomous functions of the body that we perform unconsciously. Think about it, how often are you aware that you are breathing? Inhaling air keeps our blood adequately saturated with oxygen and is a function that is essential to life.

However, sometimes this natural process can be made difficult when we encounter pain while breathing. Moreover, because breathing is a continuous process, it can be extremely frustrating to have to deal with constant pain or discomfort.

This can manifest in a myriad of ways, one of which is back pain. If your back hurts when taking a deep breath, this blog post will explain why, what treatment options are available to you, and when to seek medical care.

Why Does My Back Hurt When Taking a Deep Breath?

Back pain when breathing can be extremely troublesome for those experiencing it. Back pain can be an acute or chronic condition, depending on the underlying cause. This type of back pain is usually sharp, rising as one takes a breath and reaches an apex upon a full inhale. 

To understand why, we need to be aware of how the rib cage functions and its relation to spinal health

The rib cage connects to the thoracic spine via a series of cartilaginous joints. These joints allow flexibility so that the rib cage can expand while inhaling.

The rib cage is surrounded by intercostal muscles which consist of three layers and fill the space between the ribs. These muscles pull down on the rib cage and allow air to be pushed out of the lungs and through the mouth and nose when exhaling, speaking, or singing. 

Injuries within the rib cage can cause what is called a “rib out,” or pain when breathing in. Because these muscles and joints are connected to the spine, pain can be felt in the back. 

A rib out, or rib pain, occurs due to irritation of the intercostal nerve—a nerve that runs along every rib. When one of the ribs is out of alignment, the nerve sends the brain a signal that says the rib joint is painfully out of place, hence the term “rib out.”

When this happens, your body also will go through very hard muscle spasms to stabilize the area, which could also be painful when breathing in. 

Because of the rib cage’s relationship with the back, some underlying health conditions that can cause your back to hurt when taking a deep breath include:

  • Muscle strain: Because many muscles are utilized when breathing, if any of the muscles surrounding the lungs become injured, the constant force applied to them to breathe can cause pain. This can occur from trauma such as a fall, a car accident, or working out. People who play unilateral sports where one side of the body exerts much more motion such as golf, tennis, and baseball are very likely to have this kind of muscle strain.
  • Scoliosis: Scoliosis is an unnatural lateral curvature of the spine that exceeds 10 degrees. This curvature can place extra pressure on the lungs as well as the muscles and joints that surround the rib cage which can make breathing painful.
  • Kyphosis: While scoliosis is a lateral condition, hyperkyphosis is an unnatural forward curvature of the spine. This can cause individuals to have a hunched posture which also places uneven pressure on the lungs as well as the joints and muscles that surround the rib cage. A flat thoracic curvature, or hypokyphosis (too little curve), can also predispose a person to this type of rib pain.
  • Pleurisy: Pleurisy is inflammation of the pleura, which are the two thin membranes lining and protecting the chest and lung cavities. This inflammation can cause sharp pain when breathing that can be felt in the back and lower shoulders.
  • Pneumonia: Pneumonia is an infection that causes one or both lungs to fill with fluid. People with pneumonia may experience pain in the back when breathing as well as in the chest and abdominal region.
  • Fracture: Hairline fractures can occur in the portion of the ribs that are located near the back. The shifting of the ribs when breathing can cause severe, sharp pain when they are fractured.

Is Back Pain When Breathing Always a Concern?

If your back hurts when taking a deep breath, it could be an acute issue that goes away with time. This is true of instances of muscle strains or inflammation. However, chronic conditions such as scoliosis, kyphosis, or a fracture pose serious medical concerns.

Luckily, there are some actions you can take that may minimize acute pain such as:

  • Rest and avoid exercise: This one may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s important to stress that giving these joints and muscles time to recover is crucial to a swift recovery.
  • Use a rib belt: Rib belts wrap around the rib cage, applying even pressure to help stabilize the area. This can make the area feel better very quickly. It’s recommended to place a layer of clothing between the skin and the belt to avoid skin irritation. 
  • Alternate hot and cold therapy: Applying heat can calm spasms and muscle pain as well as speed up the healing process while applying ice to cool the region can reduce inflammation. 

It may be obvious that fractures should be treated by a medical professional. However, it may not be as readily apparent that difficulty and pain from breathing due to scoliosis or kyphosis should also be treated. 

While the treatments listed above can also help with the short-term alleviation of chronic symptoms, it’s not likely that the symptoms will improve without more long-term treatment options. 

If your back pain when breathing is severe and persistent, you should seek medical care to identify any conditions that could be causing back pain and to ensure there are no serious injuries like fractures. 

Postural issues such as scoliosis and kyphosis can be treated with chiropractic care for an effective long-term solution for back pain when breathing. 

PostureWorks Treats Your Back Pain with Chiropractic BioPhysics®

When your back hurts while taking a deep breath, it could be a sign of an underlying condition. If you don’t have a fracture, it could be scoliosis or kyphosis. That’s why the team at PostureWorks uses Chiropractic BioPhysics® to properly assess your spine’s curvature to identify scoliosis or kyphosis. 

Chiropractic BioPhysics® analyzes your unique spinal curvature to create customized treatment plans that incorporate postural exercises, neuromuscular education, spinal traction, and chiropractic adjustments depending on your unique needs. With postural improvements, you could see long-term alleviation of back pain when breathing.

Contact us today if your back hurts when taking a deep breath or to schedule your appointment with PostureWorks.

Chiropractic BioPhysics®, or CBP, is a deeply researched and results-oriented corrective care technique. CBP-trained chiropractors aim to realign the spine back to health and optimal function. As with all chiropractic care, CBP is conservative, painless, and non-invasive.

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