Upper back pain can occur when breathing, especially when taking a deep breath. Possible causes range from muscle strain to asthma, anxiety, and heart problems.

Pain in the upper back when breathing usually extends around the chest. A sharp pain could be a sign of pleurisy or a heart attack. A dull ache may be due to a fractured vertebra or muscle strain.

Looking out for other symptoms can sometimes help a person identify the cause of the pain. If upper back pain is causing ongoing difficulty breathing, it is important to seek medical advice, as there may be a serious cause.

Keep reading to learn more about some of the possible causes of upper back pain when breathing.

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Muscle strain is a common cause of upper back pain. It can cause pain when breathing, as moving air in and out of the lungs stretches the back muscles.

A person may strain the muscles in their upper back due to exercise, injury, or lifting something heavy.


People can treat a muscle strain with rest, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and ice.

Applying a towel-wrapped ice pack to the upper back for up to 20 minutes regularly throughout the day should ease the pain and swelling.

Pleurisy affects the tissue covering the outside of the lungs, and this tissue swells because of an infection. This swelling can cause difficulty breathing and pain that radiates around the chest.

Many conditions can lead to pleurisy. A common cause is viral or bacterial respiratory illnesses, such as pneumonia and bronchitis.

Other causes of pleurisy can include:


It is possible to treat a mild chest infection at home with rest, fluids, and pain relievers. However, people should seek medical advice for a more serious infection or a child or older adult.

Chest infections caused by bacteria will likely require taking antibiotics.

Treating lung cancer depends on the type and stage of the cancer but often requires chemotherapy or radiation.

The vertebrae are bones that make up the spine. A person may fracture a vertebra in a serious accident, such as a car crash or a fall from a height. It can also result from a sports injury.

If a person fractures a vertebra in the upper part of their spine, it can cause pain in the upper back when breathing. This pain often gets worse with movement.


The type of treatment will depend on the severity of the fracture, and a visit to a doctor is the only way to determine the severity of the injury. A back brace, physical therapy exercises, and a gradual return to normal movement can help a person heal.

Body aches can be more common in people who have anxiety and other mood disorders.

A person may feel upper back pain as a result of anxiety and panic attacks. Other possible symptoms include chest pain, difficulty breathing, sweating, shaking, dizziness, and a racing heart.


Treatment for anxiety disorders can involve therapy, anxiety medications, and relaxation techniques. Breathing exercises may help if a person feels as though they are about to have an anxiety or panic attack.

A person may need to try different treatments before they find something that works well for them.

The symptoms of an asthma attack can be similar to a panic attack, and the two conditions sometimes occur together.

In cough-variant asthma, a person may experience a persistent, dry cough, which may strain or pull a person’s back muscles over time, causing back pain.

In people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), breathing difficulties and coughing can also cause strain on the chest and back.


Treatment for either COPD or asthma may involve preventive measures, such as limiting exposure to allergens that may trigger symptoms, getting an annual influenza vaccine, maintaining a healthy weight, and undergoing immunotherapy.

A person may also need to use a bronchodilator or corticosteroid inhaler.

Scoliosis is a condition that causes a sideways curve of the spine. Depending on the severity of the condition, a person may also experience back pain. The back pain may be spinal pain and is not always dependent on their breathing.

Other possible symptoms include slightly uneven shoulders or hips and the body leaning to one side.


For children and teenagers, a back brace or surgery can help stop a curve in the spine from developing any further. Exercise can help strengthen the back muscles and support the spine to reduce pain.

Problems with the heart can cause chest and back pain, as well as breathing difficulties.

Heart attack

Heart attacks and other cardiovascular events can cause chest tightness, shortness of breath, and radiating pain throughout the upper chest area.

Other symptoms of a heart attack can include:

  • feeling sick or dizzy
  • pain in the back, neck, or jaw
  • shortness of breath
  • pain in the arm or shoulder

Females are more likely than males to experience back pain as a symptom of a heart attack.

Pulmonary embolism

A pulmonary embolism is another condition that can cause difficulty breathing and pain in the upper back.

it occurs when a blood clot prevents blood flow to the lungs. These clots often form elsewhere in the body before coming loose and moving through the circulatory system.

Symptoms include:

  • a stabbing chest pain when breathing that may occur with upper back pain
  • an irregular heartbeat
  • difficulty breathing
  • fast breathing
  • coughing up bloody phlegm


Both a heart attack and a pulmonary embolism are medical emergencies. If a person is experiencing any symptoms, dial 911 immediately.

A person having a heart attack may require CPR until emergency services arrive. A trained person may perform this manually or use a defibrillator, if available. Once hospitalized, a person can receive several different treatments, including a coronary artery bypass or angioplasty.

Treatment for an embolism will require hospitalization, where the person will receive oxygen through mechanical ventilation and receive blood-thinning medications to break up the clot.

This section includes some additional answers to questions a person may have about upper back pain while breathing.

Is my upper back pain from my lungs?

Health conditions affecting the lungs, such as pleurisy, can cause pain that radiates to the upper back. Intense coughing from asthma, COPD, and other respiratory conditions can also cause muscle strains around the chest and into the back.

Can I prevent upper back pain?

Preventing upper back pain when breathing is challenging if the onset of symptoms is sudden and acute. Not every potential cause is preventable.

However, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and good hygiene practices may reduce the likelihood of developing a cardiovascular condition or infectious disease. In addition, exercising and stretching can help a person avoid muscle strains.

When should I see a doctor?

Any time a person experiences sudden pain, difficulty breathing, or a sudden worsening of existing symptoms, they should call 911 or go to the emergency room immediately.

If the experience is not acute, a person should visit their doctor when the symptoms begin to interfere with their daily life or if they do not know the cause. This will ensure a person gets the right diagnosis and the best treatment.

If the upper back hurts when a person breathes, they may have strained a muscle. If this symptom occurs after an accident or injury, it is important to see a doctor, who can check for any damage to the spine.

Pleurisy and chest infections can both cause pain when breathing. A person may need medication to get rid of the infection.

Sharp pain and difficulty breathing could indicate a more serious medical problem, such as a heart attack. Therefore, people should seek urgent medical attention for sharp chest or back pain.