Back Pain When Sneezing: Causes and Treatment

Sneezing is a normal body response when our noses come in contact with allergens, air pollution, viruses, and other irritants such as strong perfume. Sneezes can be uncomfortable, but they don’t cause any issues for most people. 

However, if you are someone who has chronic back pain, sneezing can be painful. A powerful sneeze can injure your ligaments, nerves, and spinal disks, creating a new back issue. Read on to understand why you experience back pain when sneezing.

Why does my back hurt when I sneeze? 

Your back muscles are involved in just about everything you do that affects your upper body. Whether lifting, reaching, turning, or standing, your back muscles are always working.

Even though our backs are used to the movement, they can still be vulnerable to injury and strain, however. Your back can become strained from overwork, a sports injury, and believe it or not, the force from a sneeze.

Back pain while sneezing is experienced differently depending on the person. For some, back pain while sneezing is triggered by a pre-existing back condition, such as having damage to the sciatic nerve, but for others, the sudden muscle tensing of abdominal muscles from a sneeze can trigger back pain. The following are four common causes of back pain while sneezing.

1. Vertebral compression fractures

A vertebral compression fracture, otherwise known as a VCF, is a small crack in one of the bones that make up your spinal column. It is common for people with osteoporosis to experience VCFs due to having thinning bones. A powerful sneeze can cause a VCF in someone with severe osteoporosis. According to McCarthy and Davis (2016), patients who have acute VCF may report the abrupt onset of back pain when changing positions, lifting, coughing, or sneezing.  

2. Muscle strains

Muscle strains are referred to as pulled muscles. Pulled muscles can happen if you overexert yourself during a workout, heavy lifting, or some other type of physical activity. 

When you already have a pulled muscle in your back, sneezing can put unexpected pressure on your back muscles. And sometimes the pressure from a sneeze can cause a pulled muscle. Pain from a muscle strain may be worse in different positions. However, a sneeze can also irritate a pulled muscle you have in your back from another cause.

3. Herniated disk

A herniated disk is a type of spinal injury. Between the bones of your spine are protected disks that cushion your bones. These disks are buffers between your spinal bones and help with movement. Sometimes these disks can slip out of place, tear, or leak.

Spinal disks have a firm outer layer, and a jelly-like inner layer. When you have a herniated disk, the soft, jelly-like center of the spinal disk pushes out of its casing. When this happens, it puts pressure on nearby nerves. During a sneeze, the jelly-like material pushes harder against your spinal nerves, which in turn causes pain. A herniated disk can also cause tingling and numbness in the lower back and legs.

4. Sciatica 

Everyone has a sciatic nerve that runs down the lower spine through the pelvis. The sciatic nerve then branches and continues down the legs. Sometimes this nerve can become damaged. A damaged sciatic nerve is referred to as sciatica. 

Damage to the sciatic nerve typically causes both back pain and leg pain. Sneezes put sudden pressure on the sciatic nerve, which can result in shooting pains and numbness in the legs. 

If you have sciatica symptoms from a sneeze, it is possible that you have a herniated disk. 

Where does it hurt? 

1. Lower back pain when sneezing

The lower back is called the lumbar region of your back. Lower back pain while sneezing can be caused by damage to the sciatic nerve. It can also be caused by spinal stenosis, which is the narrowing of the spinal column. Pain in the lower back from sneezing can also indicate a herniated disk.

2. Middle back pain when sneezing 

The middle back is called the thoracic region of your back. Middle back pain can be caused by a muscle strain. A forceful sneeze can also strain your ribs. 

3. Upper back pain when sneezing 

The upper part of your back is called the cervical region of your back. Upper back pain while sneezing may be caused by tense muscles, a muscle strain, or a pinched nerve. 

Can sneezing cause back pain? 

Sneezing can cause back pain for those who have pre-existing back conditions, such as sciatica, vertebral compression fractures, nerve root compression, and herniated disks. A powerful sneeze can also trigger the development of a new back issue. 

How to protect your lower back while sneezing 

If you are able, stand up when you feel a sneeze coming on. Sneezing while standing up reduces the pressure on your spinal disks.

According to a research study by Hasegawa et al. (2014), it was found that leaning with your hands on a table can reduce the load of the sneeze on the lower back. This research also supports the idea that standing up while sneezing can reduce back pain that occurs as a result of the sneeze.  

How to treat lower back pain when sneezing 

Treating lower back pain while sneezing will depend on the cause of your back pain, but there are a variety of home remedies that may relieve some of your pain:

  • Apply a heat or ice pack to your lower back for 10 minutes several times throughout the day. Make sure to wrap the heat or cold back in a cloth before applying it. Don’t leave it on for more than 15 minutes at a time. 
  • Rest the back, but not for longer than two days unless you have an injury, or as directed by a doctor. Resting the back for too long can cause the muscles in the back to tense up and tighten, leading to worsened pain. 
  • Take OTC pain medicines such as acetaminophen, naproxen, or ibuprofen to relieve pain.
  • Engaging in low-impact exercise, such as swimming, yoga, or going for a walk can relieve muscle tension and reduce inflammation that contributes to your pain. 
  • See a physical therapist. A physical therapist can administer transcutaneous electrical stimulation to the lower back, which can soothe sore muscles and reduce lower back pain. 

When to see a doctor 

You should see a doctor if your sneezing causes minor back pain. Most of the time, experiencing pain from sneezing is the result of an underlying back condition that requires treatment. If you strain a muscle from sneezing, it may go away on its own in a few weeks; but because back pain can also be a sign of something more serious, you should always get it checked out by a doctor. 

Signs you should see a doctor for your back pain: 

  • If you have difficulty urinating or loss of control over bowel movements
  • Pain that starts in your back, goes down your leg, to below your knee
  • Unexplained fever
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Swelling in the back
  • Numbness or tingling around your genitals or bottom
  • Pain that is not relieved by resting 
  • Pain that becomes worse from sneezing or coughing

Get help from an online doctor 

Experiencing back pain during or after a sneeze or cough can be worrisome and uncomfortable, but with DrHouse, you can quickly get answers by connecting to a board-certified doctor within minutes. DrHouse is a telemedicine app that allows you to have an appointment with an online doctor at any time, 365 days a year, from your own home. 

During the video call, a clinician will determine the cause of your back pain while sneezing, answer your medical questions, and provide you with the treatments needed to relieve your back pain from sneezing. A doctor may also order tests and refer you to a specialist, if necessary. 

DrHouse can help with a wide variety of health concerns, including:

  • COVID-19 or flu advice
  • Ear, nose, and throat issues
  • Heart, lung, and chest issues
  • Bone, joint, and muscle conditions
  • Headaches 

With DrHouse, you can receive medical prescriptions and prescription refills, and you do not need medical insurance to receive treatment. 

All DrHouse doctors have graduated from top U.S. medical schools, which ensures that you will be in good hands. DrHouse also has care assistants for 24/7 chat support. If you need to see a doctor in person, an appointment to see a doctor the same day at a nearby clinic can be scheduled. 

With assistance from medical professionals from the DrHouse app, you can see a doctor within minutes, allowing you to quickly experience relief from your back pain. 

Key Takeaways

Back pain while sneezing is unpleasant. If you are someone who has a back condition, you are probably familiar with the feeling. Back pain can be triggered easily by sudden movements that tense the abdominal muscles, such as a sneeze or cough. 

Sometimes a sneeze can be powerful enough to cause muscle strains, vertebral compression fractures, and herniated disks.  

Back pain while sneezing can be reduced by standing up during a sneeze, or by placing your hands on a table while standing. If you experience back pain during a sneeze or at any time, you should always get it checked out by a doctor. 

Sources:

  • Castillo, E. R., & Lieberman, D. E. (2015, January 10). Lower back pain. OUP Academic. Retrieved June 23, 2022, from https://academic.oup.com/emph/article/2015/1/2/1795271 
  • Hasegawa, T., Katsuhira, J., Matsudaira, K., Iwakiri, K., & Maruyama, H. (2014). Biomechanical analysis of low back load when sneezing. Gait & posture, 40(4), 670–675. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gaitpost.2014.07.020
  • Lower back pain when coughing: Causes and treatment. Medical News Today. (n.d.). Retrieved June 23, 2022, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325707#causes 
  • McCarthy, J., & Davis, A. (2016). Diagnosis and Management of Vertebral Compression Fractures. American family physician, 94(1), 44–50.
  • Verwoerd, A., Mens, J., El Barzouhi, A., Peul, W. C., Koes, B. W., & Verhagen, A. P. (2016). A diagnostic study in patients with sciatica establishing the importance of localization of worsening of pain during coughing, sneezing and straining to assess nerve root compression on MRI. European Spine Journal: Official Publication of the European Spine Society, the European Spinal Deformity Society, and the European Section of the Cervical Spine Research Society, 25(5), 1389–1392. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00586-016-4393-8

DrHouse articles are written by MDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. The contents of the DrHouse site are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.

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