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7 min read

Have you ever noticed a sharp pain in your back when you cough? Maybe it also happens when you laugh or sneeze.

What’s up with that?

With sharp pains in the back when coughing, you may notice that it happens in different areas: the upper back between your shoulder blades, middle back, or lower back. Should pain in all of these areas be treated the same?

Answer: maybe. But, maybe not. There could actually be a few different things going on since we have a lot of different parts in our backs (think muscles, nerves, spine, lungs, kidneys, and more).

Let’s try to differentiate upper and lower back pain with coughing and what to do about it.

Why does my back hurt when I cough?

Can coughing cause back pain?

Many times, back pain with coughing is related to a muscle problem like sprain, strain, or tension. This leads to muscle stiffness, spasm, tightness, pain, or tenderness.

Let’s review a little bit of anatomy here. In our backs, we have our spine which is made up of seven vertebrae in our neck, twelve in our upper back, and five in our lower back.

Our middle vertebrae have twelve pairs of ribs attached to them by small joints and ligaments. The joint between the vertebrae and the rib is called the “costovertebral joint.”

In addition, many of the muscles in the upper back are attached to the ribs.

When the upper back muscles contract forcefully (coughing, intense exercise, or injury), too much pressure can be put on the ribs and costovertebral joints. This typically causes pain in the upper back that feels worse with coughing, sneezing, and laughing. This problem can also arise from performing an awkward movement or having bad posture for a prolonged period of time.

If this funky costovertebral joint doesn’t get better (or gets worse), then other muscles like in the neck and shoulder become affected and can go into severe spasm. This leads to pain such as dull, achy headaches and possible restriction of neck movement. All bad things.

Let’s move down further into the back.

As you might know, all of the muscles in your back are connected. Your back muscles are responsible for holding your vertebrae in place and also connect to nerves stretching throughout your entire body. So, they have big jobs to do.

Pin How to stop back hurting from coughingSince your back muscles are holding your spine in place, increased pressure within the spinal canal from a forceful cough or sneeze can cause mid to lower back pain. Even yawning, overstretching, and laughing can produce this pain.

If you have weak back muscles or have suffered from back injuries in the past, you are even more vulnerable to this type of pain.

Further, pain that occurs mostly in the lower back is usually due to strain after an intense physical task or improper body mechanics (for example: lifting with your back and not your legs).

In addition to lower back pain with coughing, lower back strain can also cause pain in the upper legs and groin area.

Of course, there are other explanations for lower back pain which are typically chronic conditions such as scoliosis, sciatica, arthritis, or a herniated disc. If you can’t treat back pain on your own, it may be time to see someone.

Now you might ask, “can coughing actually cause back pain?” Yes indeed.

Let’s say you got stuck with a lingering cough and you are hacking up a lung day and night.

Sound familiar?

Those repeated bouts of coughing can actually lead to a muscle strain. Sometimes, severe, forceful coughing can cause small hernias or even fractured ribs. These instances (thankfully) are quite rare.

So our muscles are the usual culprit for back pain with coughing. What else could it be? And what do I do about it?

What to know about upper back pain when coughing

We discussed that our costovertebral joints connecting our spine and ribs can cause upper back pain with coughing. What else is there?

There is the possibility of a lung infection or lung-related problem.

Your lungs actually lie in your upper back area so pain from lung problems can easily refer to the muscles in your upper back. Think about this when the pain is associated with deep breaths or coughing. Also, try to figure out if the pain is affected by movement.
You should not ignore this pain if you have a personal history of lung problems or are feeling short of breath. Go get evaluated to clear things up and start the road to recovery.

If the pain turns out to be regular ol’ muscle strain in the upper back, there is plenty that can be done about it on your own.


How to stop back pain from coughing

No, I’m not giving you an excuse stay in bed all week. Rest simply means to take a break from the activities that may have caused or worsened your back pain. So, consider taking it easy on your pickup basketball games or heavy lifting.

For the most benefit, only lie down a few hours at a time and never for more than two days. When lying down whether on your back or side, make sure to keep your knees supported with a pillow.

Hot and Cold Therapy

How to use hot therapy when your back hurts from sneezing or coughing

You can try either hot or cold packs to see what works best for you.

In general, cold works better right after the injury has occurred to help cut down on inflammation.

Heat can treat several types of back pain and is best for muscles that are tight and crampy.

You can always alternate between hot and cold therapy to get the best of both worlds.

TENS Therapy

How to use TENS for low back back pain

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) is a type of therapy that delivers low voltage electrical currents to relax your muscles and cut down on back pain symptoms.

Sound a little intense? Well, you actually don’t even need to go to a clinic or hospital to receive TENS therapy; you can do it in the comfort of your own home.

Check out this video below about TENS therapy and how to use it for back pain.

Rethink your mattress

Will a mattress help with back pain

A good night’s sleep and a supportive mattress are vital to a pain-free back.

Old and unsupportive mattresses cause back pain due to improper spine support and alignment while sleeping.

Yes, a new mattress is an investment but it might make a world of difference.

We’re big fans of The Wirecutter and how they review products. If you’re in the market for a new mattress, check out their reviews.

Fix your posture: stand up straight

Good posture to stop back from hurting from a cough

Many of us tend to have poor posture for a number of reasons: looking down at our phones constantly, typing at a keyboard all day, or craning our necks.

Also sitting for prolonged periods of time (while driving, watching TV, or while using a computer) puts a lot of strain on the neck and shoulder muscles which leads to decreased circulation and inflammation.

Try to keep your spine in good alignment when sitting or standing. And if you are sitting for prolonged periods of time, make sure you get up and move around and stretch a bit at least every hour.

How about when my lower back hurts when I cough?

We know now that lower back pain with coughing is usually caused by a muscle strain.

Lower back pain from a muscle strain is usually brought on by performing some type of intense physical task. Say you helped someone move boxes all weekend and now your back is killing you. And that pain is traveling down through your legs. We’ve all been there.

As mentioned above, make sure to give those sore muscles a rest so that the pain does not become chronic.

Did you know that there are ways to avoid lower back pain when you cough or sneeze? Consider the following tips:

  • Keep your back arched. Many people instinctively hunch forward when they cough or sneeze. This actually causes pressure inside the discs of the spine to increase a great deal. When coughing or sneezing, make sure to keep your back in its natural arch.
  • You could also try putting your hand on a firm, flat surface when coughing or sneezing to stabilize yourself and decrease the compressive effect on the spine

What are some other ways to support your lower back?

Lumbar support

A back brace can promote good posture and relieve stress on the spine. It may even help prevent re-injury.

You can also try a lumbar chair support for your computer chair or car. These cushions reduce strain on the lower back to prevent pain and stiffness. It may even help improve your posture.

Stay active and stretch

Stretches for hurt back from coughing

In general, it is recommended that people who suffer from lower back pain stay active as much as possible.

Staying active gets the blood flowing keeping muscles, ligaments, and tendons healthy and strong. Of course, staying active also prevents weight gain which can put stress on the muscles and make back pain worse.

Great exercises for those with back pain include walking and swimming. There are also a lot of great yoga poses you can do to help stretch the back muscles such as half-pigeon or legs up the wall.

Drop the weight

Diet for back pain relieve
Back pain is extremely common for those who are overweight. It makes sense if you think about it; your muscles become weak and strained with all the extra weight you need to carry around.

Losing weight can make a big difference in your back pain and overall health and well-being. It takes a major diet overhaul and regular exercise. Who knows? You may be the next big success story.

Always lift with your legs

What to do when back hurt when you cough
Bad body mechanics is a common cause of lower back injury and strain.

When lifting a heavy object, keep your knees and elbows slightly bent. Make sure to use power from your legs, not your back. You should also keep your spine in good alignment; don’t twist and turn simultaneously.

Wear the right shoes

It’s always so interesting to me to see how many people wear shoes that are only hurting their feet or their back.

If you have back pain and you spend long periods of time standing, it’s a good idea to invest in high-quality shoes and insoles. That support can prevent shock and impact from traveling up your body.

Wear shoes with good arch and heel support and toss shoes with obvious signs of wear and tear. Your back will thank you!

Now say goodbye to back pain when you cough

That nagging back pain when you cough, whether it be upper or lower back is often caused by a muscle strain.

These muscle strains can come about for a number of reasons: repetitive, awkward movements, poor posture, inactivity, and even the action of coughing.

Take care of your back and practice good posture and body mechanics every day to get rid of and prevent further pain and distress.

Shannon Brosek, Copywriter, Nurse
Meet the Author
Shannon is a nurse practitioner with an array of clinical experience. She is particularly passionate about health promotion and disease prevention. When she's not nurse practitioner-ing or writing, she enjoys reading, cooking, and yoga. You can check out her blog at 

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