Lower Back Pain When Breathing: A Guide To Potential Causes

If you have pain in your lower back when breathing, you’re probably eager to discover the cause. People of any age and background can experience this symptom, but the causes differ greatly, and some are more serious than others.

In some cases, lower back pain when breathing is acute, caused by an injury that heals over time. In others, the pain is a symptom of a serious health condition, so it’s important to know when to seek medical advice.

Find out more about lower back pain, why you might feel pain when you breathe, and when it’s time to see a doctor.

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What is lower back pain?

Lower back pain is any pain you have in your lower back, whether it’s stiffness, difficulty standing up straight, or restricted lower back movement caused by pain.

Some causes of lower back pain when breathing are more serious than others. It could suggest a serious medical condition such as pneumonia, lung cancer, or a pulmonary embolism, particularly when accompanied by chest pain, fever, or shortness of breath.

Lower back pain when breathing often ranges in intensity from a dull, constant ache to sharp, sudden, or shooting pain when you breathe. If the pain is due to an injury, you might notice it suddenly, but it could develop slowly over days, weeks, or years.

If you notice pain in your lower back when breathing, make a note of when you first felt this pain. This is important because if the cause goes untreated for too long, it might lead to complications. You should also pay close attention to any other symptoms and know when it’s time to see a doctor or get emergency medical care.

Generally, there are two main types of back pain:

Acute lower back pain

Also referred to as short-term or new-onset back pain, this pain starts quickly and can last anywhere from days to weeks. It should improve within a few days, but speak to a doctor if it lasts any longer. If you also experience other symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, fever, or pain in other areas of your body, get medical help right away.

Chronic lower back pain

This is lower back pain that persists for 12 weeks or longer, even after the underlying cause has been treated.

What causes lower back pain when breathing?

Most acute lower back pain is caused by a disruption in the back that affects movement. The disrupted part could be your spine, nerves, intervertebral disks, or your muscles. Lower back pain can also be caused by a medical condition that affects your internal organs — that’s why taking note of your other symptoms and seeking medical help when needed is important.

Here are the potential causes of lower back pain when breathing:

Obesity

Obesity is among the most common causes¹ of chronic lower back pain. If you are obese, you are carrying excess weight around your abdomen, back, and neck. This puts pressure on muscle groups and nerve clusters in your back, which can cause discomfort and pain while breathing. It also sets you up for lower back injuries and muscle strain. By losing weight, you can reduce the pressure on your lower back and ease the pain.

Pregnancy

Pregnant women may experience lower back pain when breathing. Different factors can cause lower back pain during pregnancy. In the first trimester, lower back pain usually results from hormone changes or stress; in the second or third trimester, pain is usually caused by weight gain and physical changes.

Severe pain or pain that lasts for more than a few hours could indicate a serious health problem. In this case, you should see your doctor.

Age

As you get older, you are more likely to experience pain in your lower back when you breathe.

People between the ages of 30 and 50 may begin to lose bone strength due to osteoporosis (a condition that weakens bones), leading to fractures and decreased tone and muscle elasticity. As you age, the intervertebral disks in your back also lose fluid and become less flexible. When this happens, the intervertebral disks are less effective at cushioning and supporting your vertebrae, leading to pain, and in some cases, spinal stenosis (a condition in which the spaces in your spine get narrower)

Lung cancer

Lower back pain when breathing can be a symptom of lung cancer. Lung cancer usually has no symptoms early on, but chest pain that gets more severe when you cough or breathe deeply is a common sign that cancer has progressed. If cancer spreads to other parts of your body, it can trigger back and hip pain, and if a tumor is pressing on a spinal nerve, you might experience lower back pain when breathing.

Other potential symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • Difficulty breathing

  • A chronic cough

  • Wheezing

  • Coughing up blood

If you have lower back pain when breathing alongside any of the symptoms above, speak to a doctor immediately.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a lung infection that causes inflammation. You might start to notice pain in your upper abdomen or back when you take a breath. This is because the air sacs in the infected area begin to fill up with fluid, making breathing difficult and sometimes painful.

Typical pneumonia symptoms include:

  • Lower back pain

  • Chest pain

  • Coughing with phlegm 

  • Vomiting

  • Wheezing

  • Fever or chills

  • Loss of appetite

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Shortness of breath

  • Abdominal pain

  • Fatigue

Pneumonia symptoms can cause severe lower back pain if the condition gets worse or goes untreated for a long time.

Pulmonary embolism

A pulmonary embolism is when a blood clot occurs in an artery that supplies blood to the lungs, reducing blood flow. This is a very serious and potentially life-threatening condition. If you have a pulmonary embolism, you will likely feel pain when taking a deep breath. This pain might get worse depending on how much lung tissue is damaged by the lack of blood flow.

Typical pulmonary embolism symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Dizziness

  • Chest pain

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Leg pain or swelling

  • Cough

A pulmonary embolism is a medical emergency that requires immediate assistance, so if you feel pain in your lower back when breathing as well as any of the symptoms above, get medical help right away.

Strained muscle

Muscle strain (or a pulled muscle) might occur with overuse or repetitive movement. A muscle is strained when it’s overstretched or torn, and it’s a common injury to the lower back. It may trigger spasms or sharp back pain that could feel more intense when you inhale or move around.

Typical muscle strain symptoms include:

Lower back pain caused by muscle strain doesn’t usually require any intervention — you can relieve the pain by resting and allowing the affected muscle to heal. If your pain doesn’t go away or you have other symptoms, seek medical advice.

Pleurisy and pleural effusion

The pleura is a pair of thin, smooth membranes that work as a barrier between the lungs and chest wall. There is normally a tiny amount of lubricating fluid between the two layers.

Pleurisy (also known as pleuritis) occurs when the pleura becomes inflamed. The condition can be caused by infections or injuries, but chronic illnesses such as cancer, lupus², and rheumatoid arthritis can increase your chance of developing pleurisy.

Pleurisy can lead to pleural effusion, which occurs when too much fluid builds up between the pleura. Other potential causes of pleural effusion include congestive heart failure, pneumonia, and cancer.

Both conditions can cause a sharp, irritating pain that radiates outward to your shoulders and back when taking a breath. Depending on the cause, other pleurisy or pleural effusion symptoms may include:

  • Fever

  • Cough

  • Shortness of breath

Heart attack

A heart attack occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart get narrower, reducing blood flow and preventing the heart muscle from getting the oxygen it needs to work properly. This leads to tissue dying, which typically causes chest pain. This type of pain is often described as a heavy or squeezing sensation. It might radiate from your chest to your arm or neck and sometimes travels to the back. The severity of pain depends on the heart attack’s intensity, and it may get worse when you take a deep breath.

Common heart attack symptoms include:

  • Fatigue, light-headedness, or weakness

  • Excessive sweating

  • Nausea

  • Chest pain 

  • Pain in the arm, jaw, or neck

  • Rapid heartbeat

Seek emergency medical attention right away if you notice pain in your lower back while breathing, along with any of the symptoms listed above.

Herniated disk

A herniated disk (also called a slipped disk) is one of the most common causes of lower back pain when breathing.

Your spine is made of vertebrae, individual bones that stack on top of each other, cushioned by a disk. The disks have a soft, jelly-like, and rubbery center. A herniated disk³ is caused when the disk’s soft center ruptures. This can irritate nearby nerves and cause painful muscle spasms that may get worse when you breathe. Breathing in or out causes your spine to move, worsening the pain.

A herniated disk doesn’t always cause symptoms, but it can lead to complications if left untreated. If you experience lower back pain when breathing accompanied by weakness, numbness, a tingling sensation in your lower extremities, or a loss of bladder or bowel control, seek medical advice right away.

Scoliosis

Scoliosis is a condition where the spine curves sideways. It usually becomes apparent during adolescence. The condition causes back pain in some patients (usually in adults) and could eventually be felt while breathing.

Scoliosis symptoms include:

  • A curved spine

  • Shoulders, ribs, or hips sticking out to the side

  • Ill-fitting clothes

  • Leaning to one side

  • Chest appearing asymmetrical while taking a breath

Mild scoliosis is treatable and doesn’t usually suggest a serious health problem, but speak to a doctor if you have any of the symptoms above.

Kyphosis

Another potential cause of lower back pain when breathing is kyphosis. Kyphosis is a condition where the spine curves by 50 degrees or more (a normal, healthy spine bends at around 20–45 degrees) and is most common among older women, although it can affect anyone, including children.

Mild kyphosis doesn’t usually lead to any symptoms, but some patients with severe kyphosis report back pain while breathing. This is because, as the back becomes more curved, the lungs have less space to expand and the rib cage pushes down onto the lungs and other organs.

Active injury

Injuries can lead to pain in your lower back when breathing. The symptom can result from injuries like a fractured vertebra or a bruised or broken rib since movement in the area can worsen the pain. You might continue to have lower back pain when breathing for some time, even after the injury has healed.

Other signs and symptoms to look out for are:

  • Weakness

  • Numbness and tingling

  • Tenderness

  • Muscle spasms

  • Bladder dysfunction

  • Shortness of breath

When to see a doctor

Lower back pain when breathing should begin to subside within a few days, but it may last for as long as a week. If pain is your only symptom, but it lasts for longer than a week, speak to your doctor to figure out the cause. Ignored, it could lead to complications.

However, if you experience any other symptoms (including the red flags⁴ listed below), your pain may be caused by a severe medical condition that needs urgent treatment, so seek medical care straight away.

  • Fever or chills

  • Severe abdominal or chest pain

  • Losing control of urine or stool

  • Leg swelling

  • Loss of sensation in your groin area or legs

  • Light-headedness, dizziness, or fainting

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • General body weakness or feeling numb

  • Severe coughing or coughing up blood

  • Pain in one or both arms

The lowdown

If you experience lower back pain when you breathe, take a note of when the pain started and pay close attention to any other symptoms. Lower back pain often disappears within a matter of days, but it could last for longer and lead to complications. It might be a symptom of a serious health condition and could suggest that you need urgent medical attention.

If you have lower back pain when breathing as well as a fever, difficulty breathing, loss of bladder or bowel control, numbness, tingling, a cough, or you start coughing up blood, seek medical help immediately. If you have severe pain in your back, chest, abdomen, or any other part of your body with or without other symptoms, seek medical help.

Have you considered clinical trials for Lower back pain?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Lower back pain, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Joining community groups and exercise programs for my condition made me feel empowered – but I want to be part of finding a cure.
Peter, 64

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