The back is prone to injury because it works hard to keep the body in an upright position and support the basic daily movements. When back pain occurs alongside shortness of breath, causing difficult or painful breathing, some people may worry that the cause is more serious.

In most cases, back pain and shortness of breath are merely due to a muscle strain or are the result of carrying extra weight. However, sometimes back pain with shortness of breath is due to a serious medical condition that requires prompt attention.

Someone experiencing these symptoms in addition to chest pain, sweating, nausea, dizziness or loss of consciousness should see their doctor or seek emergency care.

Read on for information about 10 potential causes for back pain and shortness of breath.

Muscle strain

Senior man experiencing back pain
It is possible to strain many muscles in the back.

There are a lot of small and large muscles in the back and between the ribs, which means a strain is a common possible cause of a person’s back pain.

Straining and injuring these muscles can cause pain, which can make it more difficult to take a deep breath.

Muscle strains respond well to rest, ice or heat, and over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

A muscle strain typically goes away after a few days, but if it lasts longer, the doctor can prescribe stronger medications, such as a muscle relaxant, to help relieve the discomfort.


Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that can develop after a cold or the flu. In most cases, someone who is healthy will recover without any complications. However, pneumonia can be severe in older adults or people who have other medical conditions.

Either a virus or bacteria can cause pneumonia. If the pneumonia is bacterial, a person may need antibiotics to clear up the infection completely. Some people may require hospitalization and supportive care to prevent further complications.

Excess weight

Being overweight means the muscles of the back have to work harder to support the basic activities of daily life. Having extra fat around the chest or back can also make it harder to breathe or take a deep breath.

Losing weight can help reduce this stress on the back. In addition, regularly exercising to work the muscles of the back can help to strengthen them and reduce pain over time.

Heart disease

A person with high blood pressure has an increased risk of heart disease.
A person with high blood pressure has an increased risk of heart disease.

Blockages to the heart can cause discomfort elsewhere in the body, such as the back, jaw, arms or shoulders.

Coronary artery disease can also cause shortness of breath as it becomes more difficult for the arteries to carry oxygen throughout the body.

Anyone who suspects heart disease should mention these symptoms to their doctor for further evaluation and treatment, if necessary.

People at high risk for heart disease include those with high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, or have a family history of heart disease.

Also, someone who smokes, is overweight, or has diabetes is also at higher risk for coronary artery disease.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus and causes chest pain, heartburn, or a sour taste in the mouth.

However, the pain can radiate to the back, often between the shoulder blades and usually after eating. In addition, if the stomach acid leaks into the airways, it can cause shortness of breath, pneumonia, or chronic coughing.

Someone who suspects that they have GERD can usually treat it relatively easily at home with the use of antacids.

Simple home remedies, such as not eating before lying down and avoiding common triggers can also help prevent GERD. Potential triggers include acidic foods, citrus, chocolate, coffee, and alcohol.

Gallbladder disease

The gallbladder is a small organ that sits in the abdomen and stores bile, which is a substance that the liver produces to help digest fats. Sometimes, small stones can form in the gallbladder that block the flow of bile.

Without treatment, gallbladder disease can cause extreme pain in the abdomen that radiates to the back. Shortness of breath, as well as confusion and rapid heart rate, can occur if the gallbladder has an infection that spreads to the bloodstream.

If a person has gallbladder stones, they may need surgery to remove the stones or the entire gallbladder. Someone who is susceptible to developing stones should avoid eating fatty foods, which can worsen bile production and increase the likelihood of developing stones.

Heart attack

A heart attack requires immediate treatment. It signals a blockage in the heart vessels that is compromising the tissue in the heart. Though some people have crushing chest pain, others have vague symptoms, such as back pain and or shortness of breath.

Anyone who suspects they may be having a heart attack should proceed to the nearest emergency room or call emergency services immediately.

Pulmonary embolism

Female patient with shortness of breath being inspected by doctor using stethoscope
A pulmonary embolism can cause shortness of breath and pain.

The primary symptom of a pulmonary embolism, which is a blood clot in the lung, is often shortness of breath and chest pain. Some people may experience back pain as well.

Pulmonary embolism is a condition that requires medical treatment.

It is essential to report any cases of sudden shortness of breath to the doctor immediately, or seek emergency care if it occurs after hours.

Aortic dissection

The aorta is a large blood vessel that exits the heart and helps to distribute blood throughout the body.

An aortic dissection occurs when there is a tear in the aorta, causing blood to leak into the vessel walls. This is a very rare condition but causes severe back pain, shortness of breath, chest pain, weakness, and sweating.

An aortic dissection is a life-threatening event that requires immediate treatment. Depending on where the dissection is, emergency surgery may be necessary.

Could it be lung cancer?

Shortness of breath and back pain are not typical signs of lung cancer. However, lung cancer can cause shortness of breath or chest pain. However, if the cancer spreads to the bones, it can cause pain in other parts of the body, such as the back or hips.

Anyone diagnosed with cancer will require treatment by a cancer specialist, or oncologist. A person may need surgery to remove the tumor, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy.


There are many potential causes of shortness of breath and back pain. In many cases, treatment is possible at home with rest. However, it is important to check in with the doctor, especially with severe shortness of breath, chest pain, or if the symptoms do not go away after a few days.