Upper Back Pain When Breathing

Pain with breathing can be alarming. You can feel it at the nape of the neck at the back, in the girdle distribution around the side of the chest cage and you can also feel it where the rib joins the breastbone at the front. 

A strained rib is the most likely cause of
chest pain when breathing

Each rib moves like a bucket handle lifting up and down off the rim of the bucket as we breathe in and out. The synchronous movement of all the ribs inflates and deflates chest and brings about gaseous exchange in the lungs. Each rib must be fully mobile and springy so that breathing can be as free as possible. 

Being tired, unfit, physically overwrought, or in some other way below par, can make it easier to 'rick' a rib and give you upper back pain when breathing. 

There are many ways you can strain a rib

  • Strenuous pushing exertion through the arms
  • Repeated coughing as part of a chest infection
  • Raised muscle tone (muscle spasm) caused by a stiff thoracic vertebra
  • Poor posture making it difficult for the ribs to work properly

Download the Upper Back Video
to See How to Mobilise Your Ribs and Thoracic Spinal Segments


In the video above Sarah Key explains all about the way the thoracic spine, the chest and the ribs work – delicately notching into the sides of the vertebrae - and how you can mobilise and strengthen your upper back yourself.  Most upper back problems can be fixed this way!


  1. Rib-to-spine mobilisation techniques

  2. Upper back straightening techniques

  3. Upper back strengthening exercises

About Sarah

Sarah is the world-renowned expert in spinal health and an Australian
physiotherapist made a Member of the Victorian Order by Her Majesty The Queen.

She is the author of 5 highly successful books on spine and joint problems. She explains in simple can-do language what causes upper back pain when breathing
and what you can do about it. 

Explaining why you get pain on breathing

intercostals of the rib cage

If you inadvertently twist or jar a rib, the intercostal muscles will develop an automatic protective clench to hold the rib still. This is known as muscle spasm. If the muscle stays switched on for too long it makes the problem rib more rigid, so that it feels a hard prominent ridge. You will feel the rib is 'caught' and if you take a deep breath you will get a sudden grab of pain. 

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