Why Does My Back Hurt When I Take Deep Breaths?

Summit back, neck, and spine specialist Erik Ekstrom, M.D., explains some of the possible reasons for back pain that happens with deep breaths.

Our bodies can certainly be mysterious — and strange aches and pains are some of the confusing signs our bodies can send. But what does it mean when your back hurts each time you take a deep breath? Erik Ekstrom, M.D., back, neck, and spine specialist at Summit Orthopedics, explains some of the diagnostic possibilities from an orthopedic perspective.

First, a caveat: back pain with breathing is not necessarily an orthopedic issue at all. It could be anything from a sign of a heart problem, to a gastrointestinal issue, to a symptom of anxiety. “Deep breaths can shift internal organs like the kidneys and intestines, causing discomfort, and it could also be a problem with the lungs,” Dr. Ekstrom said. For those reasons, it’s important to talk with your primary care doctor to rule out nonorthopedic causes.

But if other causes have been ruled out, it may be time to consider the back itself. “There are a range of spine-related conditions that could come into play with a symptom like this,” Dr. Ekstrom said.

Back muscle spasms with deep breaths

“There are multiple structures that support the back, including many muscles,” Dr. Ekstrom said. “Those muscles can spasm when they are stretching, as would be the case when you take a deep breath.”

The intercostals — the muscles between the ribs that are used for breathing — are likely culprits, but muscle spasms can affect any muscle group, including the abdominals, the spinal muscles, and the pelvic floor muscles. “Spasms in any one of those muscle groups could cause pain with a deep breath,” Dr. Ekstrom said.

Increased pressure with deep breaths

Another possible cause is increased pressure. “Breathing increases the intra-abdominal pressure on spine. Taking deep breaths, coughing, bearing down — all of these should not cause pain, but if you have a spinal problem, the increased pressure could worsen it,” Dr. Ekstrom said. For example, a herniated disc or nerve impingement could cause pain with deep breathing.

But ultimately, Dr. Ekstrom said, even deep breathing shouldn’t cause back pain. “So if you’re having a recurring issue with back pain when you take deep breaths, it may necessitate a higher-level review,” he said. “I’d encourage anyone having these symptoms to come in for a consult, where we can take images of your spine and help you determine what is happening.”

Summit Orthopedics offers comprehensive spine expertise

Our back specialists diagnose spine problems and design custom treatment plans built on a conservative, nonsurgical approach. Most patients find relief through treatments including guided injections, specialized physical therapy, biofeedback, exercise, activity modification, and medication. When conservative care does not relieve symptoms, our highly skilled surgeons offer proven, evidence-based surgical options. Together with you, we will determine the right course of action.

Start your journey to a healthy spine. Find your spine expert, schedule an appointment online, or call us at (651) 968–5201 to schedule a spine consultation.

Summit has convenient locations across the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, serving Minnesota and western Wisconsin. We have state-of-the-art centers for comprehensive orthopedic care in Eagan, MNPlymouth, MN, Vadnais Heights, MN, and Woodbury, MN, as well as additional community clinics throughout the metro and southern Minnesota.

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  • Erik J. Ekstrom, M.D.

    “I believe in listening to patients and making them feel comfortable. For me, the most gratifying part of the work is finding the problem and fixing it so patients can return to their usual activities.”

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