upper back pain when breathing

Sarah Key, expert in spinal health and author of ‘The Back Sufferers' Bible’ explains what causes upper back pain when breathing and what you can do to help yourself avoid this

image of rib cage

Upper chest pain with breathing is usually related to rib dysfunction

Upper back pain when breathing is usually related to a sprained rib where it keys into the side of the spine. Equally as common is a sharp rib pain when breathing at the front of the chest.

WARNING:  If it's on the left side, it could be heart trouble (particularly if it flows down the left arm) 

If a cardiac assessment is all clear, pain at the front of the chest is likely to be caused by strain where a rib joins the breastbone, or sternum. (The medical name for this is costochondritis.)

Read more about the anatomy of the rib cage. . . .

causes of upper back pain when breathing

Each rib moves like a bucket handle; lifting up off the rim as we inhale and settling down again on the rim as we breathe out. All the ribs do this in unison as the lungs inside inflate with air and empty again.

movement of the ribs diagram

The ribs rise and lower like bucket hands as we breathe

Each rib must be fully mobile and springy so that the lung tissue under doesn't fail to fill, or worse, start to collapse.

If a vertebra is stiff, or slightly twisted off-centre in the spine, the rib-to-spine junction doesn't run smoothly.  If the head of your rib isn't comfortably notched into the disc, because one or the other is slightly twisted, the muscles at that level will go into an automatic protective mode to hold the rib still. Instead of only working occasionally when you cough or sneeze, they will stay switched on all the time, as a sort of local muscle cramp.

Muscle spasm of the intercostals is painful in itself ~ and more so if you take a deeper breath, as the muscle clench flicks on harder.

intercostals of the rib cage

Spasm of the intercostal muscles can make the rib more rigid. The problem rib then feels more prominent

You can have pain in the upper back when breathing. But you can also have what feels like a hard, permanent band of tightness from the stiffer rib sitting up proud, like a single prominent rung of a ladder.

Being tired, unfit, physically overwrought, or in some other way below par can hamper the streamlined coordination of all the moving parts.

Just as importantly, the intercostal muscles staying switched on sets the problem rib up for being hurt over and over again. By not being free to roll with the punches it becomes a sitting duck to future trauma. Even the most minor action can tweak it and set it off again.

man with pain in rib cage

An imperceptibly twisted rib can cause excruciating back pain when breathing. Chest pain too!

Upper back pain when breathing may be brought on by repeated coughing fits as part of a chest infection, even though you may feel nothing at the time. Acute bronchitis, bronchiectasis, pneumonia, or just a bad case of the flu' often involves severe bouts of coughing which may leave you with one (or more) strained ribs.

But if you’re plain unlucky too, it can happen with a chance errant action that is seemingly absurdly trivial.

That said, an incident like this is often associated with being in some way slightly below par: a sub-clinical viral illness, extreme tiredness, a stressful (emotional) period, or when you're just running on empty.

how to get rid of upper back pain when breathing

There are many exercises that you must do yourself to mobilise the thoracic spine and the stuck ribs. My BackBlock can be used for the upper back and is essential in opening up the chest and loosening any ‘stuck’ ribs. 

It is easy to learn how to do the exercises for the upper back using the BackBlock through one of my video packages.  Either of the following packages contain the information about using the upper back block, and if you watch all the videos, you will have all the knowledge you need to treat your back on your own, and prevent problems into the future. 

Back Pain Treatment Video Package

Back Pain Exercises Video Package

You can also read about using the Back Block for the Upper Back

Buy the BackBlock at our Store

Meanwhile, there are two important exercises for upper back pain when breathing that you can be getting started with:

The Thoracic BackBlock

Using the BackBlock under the thoracic spine is one of the best ways to mobilise the spine and the ribs. It pulls the spinal segments apart and help free the rib investments.

Click here to read about Using the BackBlock for the Upper Back

You can also watch my video where I explain the benefits of this exercise and demonstate the best technique for using the thoracic back block.  Click on the image below.  

Bridging through the Ribs

Rolling up the spine through the thoracic spine is a way of actively mobilising the ribs yourself. 

You can tip to the left or the right, whichever is your problem side, and once you have found the trouble-maker, you can rock backwards and forwards minutely to mobilise it. 

Isolating and pressuring the rib will give you a 'sweet' pain as you roll over it. 

Click here to read more about Pelvic Bridging, which although not quite the same (this section is about spinal fusion) shows you what's entailed. 

and finally . . . 

Many people who suffer from from curvature of the spine suffer upper back pain when breathing.

In this condition, the lateral curving and buckling of a spine (that should be straight) make it especially difficult for the ribs to key into the sides of the spine 

If this is you, I suggest you read these pages on Spinal Scoliosis

Read more about What To Do About Shoulder Pain When Breathing

Click here to return Causes of Back Pain

Click here to return to Home page

Choose from 5 Great Video Packages and the Audio Do-it-Yourself Spinal Decompression Class

in the

Sarah Key Video Library

(videos not downloadable on iPad and iPhone - see The Back App for downloading to these devices)

Sarah Key's Self Help Video Library

If you're not in Australia, buying the books through Amazon.com is a whole lot faster and cheaper than buying through us!


Sarah's newest ebook, 'Be Careful about Back Surgery' is now available on Kindle for only $4.95

Or Buy the Books from Amazon UK

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