upper back pain when breathing

Sarah Key, expert in spinal health and author of ‘The Body in Action’ explains what causes upper back pain when breathing and what you can do 

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 pain at the front of the chest on taking a deep breath, more likely to come from a strained rib-to-breastbone junction. This is known as costochondritis. 

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

Jump down to treating upper back pain when breathing

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

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 bucket as we exhale. All the ribs do this in unison as the lungs inside inflate with air and empty again. Each rib must be fully mobile and springy so that breathing can go on unhindered while the rest of the body goes about its business and the natural contortions of everyday spinal movement. 

If a rib becomes stuck the lung tissue underneath will fail to fill properly, carrying out its normal gaseous exchange. This can cause subtle erosion of health and more directly related problems of lung function. Being tired, unfit, physically overwrought, or in some other way below par, can hamper the streamlined coordination of all the moving parts and make it easier to 'rick' a rib. 

movement of the ribs diagram

The ribs rise and lower like bucket hands as we breathe

A strenuous or ill-considered wrenching arm movement can often strain a rib. A thoracic vertebra being stiffer than it should be also makes it easier to strain a rib, as does a vertebra sitting twisted off-centre. The head of rib will not notch comfortably into the side of the disc and the muscles of that rib will go into an automatic protective clench to hold the rib still. With all chest movement, including breathing, the rib-to-spine junction will not run in its proper streamlined and coordinated way. And instead of only working occasionally and forcefully in a phasic fashion with coughing and sneezing the intercostal muscle will stay switched on all the time in a sort of low grade (and very painful) cramp. 

Muscle spasm of the intercostals can also be like a stitch. When you take a deep breath the muscles flick on harder, but you can rouse them less and get under their guard by taking the air in more slowly. 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.

intercostals of the rib cage

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

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 the rib itself 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 also 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 rib. 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.

getting rid of upper back pain when breathing

Getting rid of upper back pain when breathing is usually a matter of mobilising a stuck vertebra and the rib attached to it and stretching out the muscle spasm. You can read here about using the Back Block for the Upper Back Pain Treatment. If you get these important exercises right you are more likely to succeed than asking a practitioner to help you. You will gain almost instant relief. 

Using the BackBlock for the upper back puts you into a strangely unfamiliar position

Using a BackBlock for upper back pain treatment will be a strange sensation and you will need to take it carefully ~ and not panic! Much better that you learn how by watching Sarah take you quietly through the process on video. Either one of the video packages below will show you how. Watch the free link below where Sarah starts to explain, and download the complete package through one of the links below. 

You may not be able to go around as far as this with the 'chest twist' but this is the general idea. Twist twice as often to the painful side. 

Twisting exercises for the thorax are a very important part of treating a painful chest and a stuck rib. The 'chest twist' gently pulls the rib-head away from where it notches into the side of the spine. It also twists the head of the rib at the same time, usually zeroing in exactly to your painful one. Sometimes, doing this exercise is the only way of eliciting your familiar pain. This, of course, is a sign you need to do more of it, gently levering your upper body around further by pushing your elbow against your knee. Usually you only elicit your familiar pain one way, but always twist the other way too, making sure to twist to the painful side more frequently at a ratio of 2:1.

Learn how to treat your own back using our video packages:

Back Pain Treatment Video Package

Back Pain Exercises Video Package

This exercise will keep you going until your backblock arrives!

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 . . . 

You may like to continue reading . . . There is nearly 80 pages of free information on this site about the definition, causes and the treatment of spinal pain. Click here and scroll down through the List of Contents

Click here to return Causes of Back Pain

Click here to return to Home page

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