18th December, 20204 min read

Why do I get back pain when I cough?

Medical reviewer:
Dr Ann Nainan
Dr Ann Nainan
Claire Fielden
Claire Fielden
Last reviewed: 08/12/2020
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Coughing is a way of getting rid of mucus or bits of dust, smoke or other unwanted material you might have breathed in. When you cough, your body pushes air out of your lungs to help clear away those irritants.

A cough can sometimes leave you feeling a little sore. For example, coughing very hard can strain your chest muscles or ribs, leaving you in pain when you breathe, move or cough again. But is it normal to feel pain in your back when you cough?

Back pain when coughing can be caused by a few different things. Here are 4 potential culprits, plus advice on when to see a doctor.

1. Muscle strain

When you cough, your whole body moves, including your back – you may notice your shoulders hunching up and your body leaning forward. As such, coughing can put a strain on your back, so you might start to get lower back pain.

2. Slipped disc

A slipped or herniated disc is when one of the discs of soft tissue between the bones of your (spine pushes out. It can be very painful – you may find it hard to stand up straight – and coughing often makes the pain worse. You should contact your doctor if you think you have a slipped disc, as you may need treatment.

Lower back MRI scan with gloved physician's hand & pencil

3. Torn ligament

A bad cough can sometimes cause a ligament (tissue that connects joints) in your back to stretch or tear – this is called a sprain. If your back is swollen or bruised, or your muscles are painfully tightening on their own (cramping), you might have a sprain.

You may get some relief by holding an ice pack or a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel against your back. However, if the pain doesn’t improve after a couple of weeks, or it keeps getting worse, or you have a high temperature, you should contact your doctor.

4. Muscle spasm

When coughing, you may feel your back muscles tighten and not relax. This is called a muscle spasm or cramp.

When should I see a doctor?

If your back hurts when you cough, it may be revealing a problem with your back that needs treatment. Your body position when you cough could also be affecting your back. Your doctor can help you understand what’s causing your back pain.

If you have any of these symptoms with your back pain and cough, speak to your doctor straight away:

  • numbness or tingling around your bottom or genitals
  • trouble peeing, or loss of control of peeing or pooing
  • fever
  • losing weight for no reason
  • swelling or deformity in the back
  • pain that is worse at night
  • pain that is not improved by resting
  • pain after a serious accident
  • pain that’s made worse by sneezing or pooing
  • pain from the top of your back

If you’ve had a cough for less than 3 weeks, it’s called an ‘acute’ cough. If you’ve had a cough for more than 3 weeks, it’s a ‘chronic’ or ‘persistent’ cough. See your doctor if you’ve had a cough for over 3 weeks.

If you are coughing up blood, you should see a doctor urgently.

Close up of examining a patient's back with a stethoscope.

Key points

  • everyone gets coughs from time to time
  • coughing hard or a lot can put a strain on your body
  • coughing can cause or draw attention to back pain that may need medical care
  • if your cough or back pain don’t get better, see your doctor
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