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Why Does My Upper Back Hurt When I Breathe? [Explained]

why does my upper back hurt when i breathe

In children, the main symptoms of scoliosis involve postural changes, and in adults for whom scoliosis is compressive, it's pain; however, lung impairment can result from a loss of space for the lungs to function optimally within, and chest pain can be felt during breathing due to the development of a rib cage arch; continue reading to learn more.

Scoliosis is a progressive and structural spinal condition, but its effects can be widespread throughout the body, and when there are structural and/or postural changes that affect the lungs, chest tightness and chest pain can result.

Scoliosis affects the body in a number of ways, and scoliosis that affects the thoracic spine is the most closely associated with upper back pain and chest pain while breathing.

General Scoliosis Effects

Scoliosis involves the development of an unnatural sideways-bending spinal curve, and as the spine also twists unnaturally, it is a 3-dimensional condition.

Scoliosis also is a progressive condition, so its nature is to get worse over time, meaning its effects will also change over time, becoming more noticeable as conditions become more severe.

The more severe a scoliosis is, the more noticeable its effects are, and the more challenging it is to treat; however, as a progressive condition, the best time to start treatment is always now.

Scoliosis introduces a lot of uneven forces to the body, and those uneven forces disrupt the body's overall symmetry, and when talking about the main symptoms of scoliosis, I like to divide this into two categories: scoliosis symptoms in children and scoliosis symptoms in adults.

Can Scoliosis Affect Lung Function? Scoliosis Breathing Issues?

Symptoms of Childhood Scoliosis

Symptoms of childhood scoliosis will vary from patient to patient based on a number of key variables: patient age, condition type, severity, and curvature location.

In the majority of cases we don't know what scoliosis develops, but we do fully understand what makes it progress: growth.

Scoliosis getting worse means the size of the unnatural spinal curve, and its rotation, is getting larger, and this makes it more complex to treat and makes its effects more overt.

In children, as a result of the condition's uneven forces, symmetry can be disrupted, and these types of asymmetrical changes are often the earliest telltale signs of scoliosis in children:

  • Uneven shoulders
  • Uneven shoulders blades
  • Development of a rib cage arch
  • Uneven waist line
  • Arms and legs that appear to hang at different lengths

Changes to balance, coordination, and gait are also common.

While scoliosis is more often diagnosed in children, it does also affect adults.

Scoliosis Symptoms in Adults

a potential effect of 400When it comes to adult scoliosis, the actual rate of scoliosis increases with age, and this is because of age-related spinal degeneration.

As scoliosis doesn't become a compressive condition until skeletal maturity has been reached, it's not commonly painful for children, but scoliosis pain is the main symptom of scoliosis in adults, and it's the main symptom that brings them in for a diagnosis and treatment.

Compression is uneven pressure, and if the spine and its surrounding muscles and nerves are being compressed, this is the main cause of condition-related pain.

Scoliosis pain can include muscle pain, back pain, and pain that radiates into the extremities due to compression.

In patients whose spines are still growing, the constant lengthening motion counteracts the compressive force of the unnatural spinal curve, but in adults, pain management is a focus of treatment.

And what about upper back pain and chest pain when breathing?

Breathing Problems with Scoliosis

A potential effect of scoliosis is lung impairment, but this is not considered a common effect and is more associated with severe, very severe cases, atypical types of scoliosis, and/or scoliosis that's left untreated.

Even when/if lung impairment develops in a scoliosis patient, in most cases, it would be unnoticed; people who would notice changes to lung function are most likely professional athletes who place higher-than-average demands on their respiratory systems: long distance runners, for example.

So now let's discuss how scoliosis can cause breathing difficulties and the types of scoliosis that are the most likely to cause upper back and chest pain while breathing.

Scoliosis can develop in any of the spine's main sections which include the cervical spine (neck), thoracic spine (middle/upper back), and the lumbar spine (lower back).

Scoliosis can also affect more than one spinal section as a combined scoliosis, or the condition can involve two unnatural spinal curves bending in different directions.

Thoracic Scoliosis

The thoracic spine is the largest spinal section so it is vulnerable to a number of spinal conditions/issues, and in most cases, the area of the body closest to the affected spinal section is going to feel the bulk of the condition's direct effects.

So if the middle/upper back is unnaturally bent and twisted, and particularly if it's compressive, compression in this area will affect its surroundings, and as the only spinal section attached to the rib cage, the thoracic spine's pull on the rib cage can alter its position, causing the development of a rib cage arch.

When the position of the rib cage is disrupted, this affects the lungs within as they are protected by the thoracic spine and rib cage, and as progression occurs, this will become more pronounced over time.

If a rib cage arch develops, this can mean less room for the lungs to function optimally within, and this can mean the inability to inhale/exhale deeply.

So thoracic scoliosis is the most likely to cause pain while breathing, but there are also atypical types of scoliosis known to have severe effects.

Atypical Types of Scoliosis and Breathing Difficulties

Most cases of scoliosis are idiopathic, meaning cause unknown, and in these typical cases of idiopathic scoliosis, unnatural spinal curves bend to the right, away from the heart, but in atypical types, the spine can bend to the left, towards the heart.

chest pain while breathing 400When curves bend to the left, they can also cause issues with pulmonary function and contribute to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chest pain, chest infections, blood flow, blood clot, pulmonary embolism, heart attack, and other symptoms.

Approximately 80 percent of known causes are idiopathic, but the remaining 20 percent are associated with known causes, and these types can be particularly severe and are more associated with pain while breathing deeply.

Congenital scoliosis, degenerative scoliosis, and neuromuscular scoliosis (caused by an underlying condition) are considered atypical types with different causes, unique characteristics, treatment needs, and because they are atypical and can be severe, curves can bend to the left, towards the heart, and this, coupled with the fact that atypical scoliosis cases are commonly more severe, makes these types more likely to cause noticeable breathing problems and chest pain while breathing.

So chest pain can be structural; it can be the result of compressive pain in the thoracic spine and its surroundings.

Chest pain while breathing deeply can indicate scoliosis-related lung impairment which is a rare effect more common in severe or untreated cases, and chest pain can also involve muscle strain and pain.

Scoliosis is associated with muscular imbalance as an unnatural spinal curve can pull its surrounding muscles in different directions, and this means muscles on one side of the spine are working extra hard to counteract the unnatural bend and twist, and muscles on the other side are becoming weak from underuse.

If a muscular imbalance develops in the thoracic spine, this is also capable of causing chest pain and pain when breathing.


When it comes to scoliosis, ranging from mild scoliosis to moderate and severe to very severe scoliosis, no two cases are the same; in addition, scoliosis affects all ages, is progressive, and has multiple condition types.

So while some patients will experience chest pain and/or pain when breathing, many will not, and breathing difficulties aren't considered a common effect of scoliosis and are more associated with severe cases of thoracic scoliosis, atypical cases, and/or scoliosis that's left untreated.

So can scoliosis cause upper back pain? Yes, scoliosis can cause varying levels of back pain, particularly when severe, when the scoliosis develops in the upper spine, and when conditions become compressive once skeletal maturity has been reached.

For those experiencing lung impairment caused by their scoliosis, chest pain, sharp pain, back pain when breathing and taking deep breaths can be a part of life, and while not life threatening, breathing issues and back pain can impact a patient's overall quality of life.

The best way to minimize the potential effects of scoliosis is through a proactive treatment approach that works towards impacting conditions on every level, and here at the Scoliosis Reduction Center, that involves a conservative chiropractic-centered treatment approach.

While there are never treatment guarantees, early detection and intervention is associated with treatment success, and treatment options include chiropractic care, physical therapy and scoliosis-specific exercises designed by a physical therapist, corrective bracing, and rehabilitation.

When scoliosis is addressed proactively, it can be highly treatable, and this is the best way to prevent increasing condition effects and potential complications, such as back pain when breathing (difficulty breathing deeply, shallow breathing) and chest pain.

Ready to discuss next steps for scoliosis treatment? Reach out to us here.
Dr. Tony Nalda
Doctor of Chiropractic
Severe migraines as a young teen introduced Dr. Nalda to chiropractic care. After experiencing life changing results, he set his sights on helping others who face debilitating illness through providing more natural approaches.

After receiving an undergraduate degree in psychology and his Doctorate of Chiropractic from Life University, Dr. Nalda settled in Celebration, Florida and proceeded to build one of Central Florida’s most successful chiropractic clinics.

His experience with patients suffering from scoliosis, and the confusion and frustration they faced, led him to seek a specialty in scoliosis care. In 2006 he completed his Intensive Care Certification from CLEAR Institute, a leading scoliosis educational and certification center.
About Scoliosis Reduction Center
Welcome to Scoliosis Reduction Center. Our team, under the leadership of Dr. Tony Nalda, is focused on treating your scoliosis in the most patient-centered, effective manner possible.
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