Why Does My Back Hurt When I Cough?

Back pain is never pleasant, and it can become concerning when your pain only increases when coughing. In some cases, coughs may be violent enough to cause the pain, whereas, in other instances, the pain is due to a lung condition or existing spinal problem, which worsens when coughing.

 In cases where the cough or back pain is due to a minor issue, it will typically resolve on its own. However, there are instances where pain only worsens as the condition remains untreated, requiring medical attention to treat the condition and relieve pain.

Can Lung Pain Be Felt in The Back?

Pain in the body can radiate, meaning a condition that affects one aspect of the body can manifest as pain in a nearby area.

One example of this is lung pain that can be felt in the back. There are various conditions impacting the lungs that can cause back pain, including pleurisy (inflammation of the lining of the lungs), pulmonary embolism, and asthma.

It’s also possible for physical trauma to the lungs to transfer to pain in the back.

Lung pain often radiates to the back and/or chest because the lungs themselves have very few pain receptors, and so the pain is often signaled by nearby pain receptors, including those in the back and chest.

How Do I Know If My Back Pain Is Lung-Related?

Lung-related back pain will often be accompanied by other symptoms that involve the respiratory system, including:

  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • coughing up blood
  • chest pain
  • difficulty breathing

Why Does My Back Hurt When I Cough?

There are various reasons why the back may hurt when coughing, with some reasons due to the cough itself while others are only aggravated by coughing. The reasons listed below extend from musculoskeletal causes that affect the spine, and those originating from the lungs but presenting with back pain that worsens when coughing.

Lung Cancer

Although rare, lung cancer can cause back pain when coughing and additional symptoms that include:

  • unexpected weight loss
  • coughing up blood
  • wheezing
  • difficulty breathing
  • fatigue

Treatment for lung cancer varies based on disease severity, but may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery.

Muscle Strain

Coughing is a forceful and violent act used to clear the airways. However, when coughing is done repeatedly, either from an illness or other cause, the body can experience quite a bit of strain. In addition to the force of the cough, the body also rounds when coughing, which can put extra stress on the back.

Those who are coughing quite a bit may strain the muscles in their back due to the position coughing places us in, resulting in pain that worsens with continued fits of coughing.

Muscle Sprain

If your cough is bad enough, the force and frequency of the cough may cause a ligament in the back to stretch or tear. This can cause swelling or bruising on the back that may last for weeks until it fully heals. In addition, each time you cough the sprain will become further aggravated because of the bending of the body that occurs, which can cause additional pain.

Pleurisy

Pleurisy is an inflammation of the membrane lining the inner side of the chest cavity that typically occurs with a lung or respiratory infection.

One of the primary symptoms of pleurisy is sharp chest pain that worsens when coughing, deep breathing, or sneezing. However, the pain from pleurisy can radiate to the back as well.

Herniated Disc

A herniated or slipped disc occurs when the soft cartilage between the vertebrae is pushed out of place. It is a painful condition, and the back pain caused by it may worsen when coughing due to the strain put on the spine. Those with a herniated disc may also find that they struggle to stand up straight, depending on the location of the herniated disc. While coughing makes the pain worse, it does not typically cause a herniated disc, and the problem often existed before the coughing began.

Pulmonary Embolism

A pulmonary embolism occurs when there is a blood clot in the lungs. While its most common symptom is shortness of breath, those with a pulmonary embolism may also experience chest and upper back pain.

Pulmonary embolisms are a medical emergency and, as such, require immediate medical attention if they are ever suspected.

Infections

There are a variety of lung infections that can manifest as back or chest pain, including:

  • tuberculosis
  • pneumonia
  • shingles
  • pulmonary actinomycosis
  • fungal infections

Lung infections can become quite severe and life-threatening if left untreated, so it is crucial to seek immediate medical attention if your chest or back pain when coughing is accompanied by:

  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • chills or night sweats
  • cough with or without blood. 

How to relieve back pain from coughing?

Rest

While it is important to rest the back, complete bed rest is not recommended as this can cause the back muscles to weaken. Avoid any actions that cause excessive strain or overuse to the back, but continue to move around to prevent stiffness.

Ice

In the case of some back issues, such as a muscle sprain, applying ice to the area in pain will help to alleviate some of the swelling, which may help relieve any pain.

Over-The-Counter Medicine

Taking over-the-counter pain relievers can help reduce any pain lingering in the back as it heals on its own.

Treat The Cough

If your cough is chronic, it will likely continue causing pain so long as it persists. It is best to receive treatment for the cough to help prevent further damage to the back. This may vary, though, based on the cause of the cough.

For those who have a cough lingering after a cold or flu, drinking warm fluids may help break up congestion in the throat. If your cough persists for longer than a week, be sure to check with a doctor for some guidance on how to get rid of your cough. 

For smokers, quitting is the best way to stop coughing and allow your back to heal. Others may have a cough due to infection, in which case an antibiotic may be needed to fight the infection and stop the cough. 

Meeting with an online doctor is an excellent option to conveniently determine how best to treat your cough and when it is necessary to seek additional treatment. 

When To See a Doctor?

If your back pain or cough lingers for a week or more, it is recommended to visit a doctor and determine the cause of the cough or back pain. Some issues affecting the back, such as a herniated disc or lung cancer, may require treatment and only worsen if left untreated. 

It is also important to also seek immediate medical attention when coughing up blood or if the back pain has become considerable enough to prevent mobility entirely. Any instance of unexpected shortness of breath also signifies a medical emergency and should be treated as such.

Get Help from An Online Doctor

Online doctors, such as those at DrHouse, are an excellent resource for gaining more information into the cause of your back pain. With all the varying conditions that can cause back pain when coughing, some due to musculoskeletal problems while others originate from the lungs, an online doctor can help narrow down the possibilities, all without leaving the house.

Because of the pain that some individuals may be in, especially if their cough caused a spinal issue, the benefits offered by being able to meet with a doctor without having to travel somewhere cannot be understated.

With DrHouse, you can meet with an online doctor in as little as 15 minutes, meaning you can quickly receive guidance on what may be causing your back pain and what can be done in terms of treatment.

Key Takeaways

Back pain that appears or worsens when coughing can be a common cause of concern, but it is not always something requiring immediate medical attention. In most cases, back pain when coughing originates from two categories: back problems and lung problems.

Because of how violent and forceful coughs can be, it’s entirely possible that the back pain felt when coughing is due to the act of coughing itself. However, in other cases, the cause of the back pain already exists and becomes aggravated with the position the body assumes when coughing.

Despite the lungs being a separate entity from the back, because of their close proximity it is common for lung conditions to refer pain to the back, which can then worsen when coughing due to the force exerted on the respiratory system.

It is best to see a doctor if there are any concerning symptoms present, and meeting with an online doctor is an excellent resource to receive medical guidance without having to travel.

Sources

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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