If you live with asthma, you probably experience some common symptoms like wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. But what if you’re also dealing with back pain? It turns out your asthma and back pain might actually be related. Here’s what you need to know and how to find relief.
Understanding asthma and back pain
Asthma and back pain can go together. Why? Because the same muscles that help you breathe also help support and stabilize your spine. Asthma can put stress on these muscles, potentially leading to back pain.
Medications, exercises, and home remedies can help you manage both asthma and back pain.
When you breathe, a bunch of muscles are at work. These are called inspiratory muscles, and they include your diaphragm and external intercostals (eleven muscles on both sides of your rib cage).
But here’s the thing: Breathing isn’t the only important job these muscles have. They’re also part of your core muscles and play a role in spinal control. That means they help keep your body upright because they form and maintain intra-abdominal pressure.
People with asthma have a harder time exhaling air from their lungs. This “changes the function of the respiratory diaphragm, as the patient is constantly in the inspiration phase of breathing,” explains Dr. Lev Kalica, owner of New York Dynamic Neuromuscular Rehabilitation & Physical Therapy in NYC.
That extra workload may put stress on the breathing muscles that help you stand up straight. And any related posture changes can lead to back pain.
A 2016 research review did find a correlation between asthma (and other respiratory disorders) and low back pain. But more studies are needed before researchers can say for sure whether there’s a connection.
Back pain has lots of different causes. Experts have theories about the correlation between back pain and asthma but don’t yet fully understand the relationship between the two or how exactly asthma may contribute to lower back pain.
Your lower back pain could also be caused by a variety of other things, including:
Unsure whether you’re dealing with asthma? Some common symptoms are:
- wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe)
- shortness of breath
- chest tightness (which can sometimes be painful too)
You’ll also notice that certain triggers can bring on an asthma attack (aka a flare-up). Triggers vary from person to person, but some common ones are:
- pet dander
- dust mites
- air pollution
When to see a doctor
If your symptoms are affecting your life, it’s important to consult a doctor. But there are some scenarios where you need to head straight to the ER.
These are the signs that you’re dealing with a medical emergency:
- You can’t say more than a couple of words because you can’t catch your breath.
- Your chest muscles are really straining to allow you to breathe.
- Your symptoms are so severe that you can’t walk.
- Your lips or fingernails turn blue.
- Your symptoms don’t get better after you use your rescue inhaler.
Your doctor will help develop a treatment plan for your asthma that accounts for the severity of your condition and other factors that affect your unique situation.
Some treatments, such as allergy shots (or allergen-specific immunotherapy), can help minimize your asthma triggers, while others can help manage your asthma. These might include medications like:
- Anticholinergics: medications that help prevent your muscles from tightening around your airways
- Anti-inflammatories: drugs that help reduce swelling and mucus in your lungs
- Biologic therapy drugs: injectable meds that are usually prescribed only for people with the most severe types of asthma
Your doc will likely also prescribe a quick-acting medication that you can take via an inhaler or nebulizer for emergencies. If your back pain is directly related to asthma, addressing your asthma can have a big impact on your back pain.
But if you have severe back pain, your doctor might prescribe pain medications (like muscle relaxants) or recommend regular steroid injections.
Looking for even more relief that you can try at home? Check out these potential options.
Home remedies for asthma
Your doctor or an occupational therapist can teach you breathing techniques to help you get more air into and out of your lungs:
- The Buteyko breathing technique helps you learn to breathe more slowly and effectively.
- Pursed lip breathing is a technique where you breathe in normally through your nose but breathe out for twice as long through pursed lips.
- Deep diaphragmatic breathing (aka belly breathing) involves breathing from an area lower and deeper in your chest.
- The Papworth method is a combination of belly breathing and stress reduction.
Home remedies for back pain
Some of the following home remedies may help relieve back pain:
- Acupuncture. Research suggests that acupuncture can help provide short-term pain relief in a safe and effective way.
- Massage. This can help ease some of your muscle tension and inflammation, which can lessen your back pain. In fact, a 2011 study suggests that massage could reduce your need for medication.
- Heat/ice therapy. Alternately applying ice packs (wrapped in a thin towel) and warm compresses to the area of your back that hurts can help relieve some of the inflammation in your back.
- Warm baths. These can help reduce inflammation and help you relax. Try adding Epsom salts or some bubble bath for an extra-special soak.
- Oils and ointments. According to a 2011 research review, some of these can be helpful when applied topically. Just make sure you test these products on a small area first, because they may irritate your skin. Wash off a product immediately if you notice redness, swelling, or a rash.
- Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications. Pain relievers like ibuprofen and naproxen can help, but talk with your doctor before taking them regularly. Your doc can make sure these won’t interfere with any other meds you use.
If you have asthma, you might experience back pain too. Are these conditions related? Possibly. The same core muscles play a role in breathing and supporting your spine. Talk with your doctor about potential medical treatments and home remedies you can use to find relief.