Shoulder Pain When Breathing – Exploring the Connection

Shoulder Pain When Breathing - Exploring the Connection

Have you ever experienced a sharp twinge in your shoulder when you take a deep breath? It might seem perplexing, but there’s a strong interplay between your shoulder and your respiratory system. In this article, we delve into the topic of shoulder pain when breathing, understanding its causes, potential medical conditions, diagnosis, and effective remedies. So, let’s embark on this journey to unravel the mystery of this discomfort and find ways to breathe freely again.

Understanding the Mechanics of Breathing

Understanding the Mechanics of Breathing

Breathing, also known as respiration, is the process by which organisms exchange gases with their environment, typically taking in oxygen (O2) and releasing carbon dioxide (CO2). It’s a vital function that provides the necessary oxygen for cells to perform various metabolic processes and eliminates the waste product CO2.

The mechanics of breathing involve several key components, including the respiratory system, muscles, and the process of gas exchange. Here’s an overview of how it works:

  • Respiratory System Anatomy: The respiratory system is composed of various structures, including the nasal passages, pharynx, larynx, trachea, bronchi, and lungs. The lungs are the primary organs responsible for gas exchange. They are divided into lobes and are enclosed by a protective membrane called the pleura.
  • Muscles of Breathing: The primary muscles involved in the mechanics of breathing are the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles.
    • Diaphragm: This is a dome-shaped muscle that separates the chest cavity (thoracic cavity) from the abdominal cavity. When the diaphragm contracts and flattens, the volume of the thoracic cavity increases, creating a negative pressure inside the lungs. This causes air to be drawn into the lungs.
    • Intercostal Muscles: These are muscles located between the ribs. There are two types: external intercostal muscles and internal intercostal muscles. During inhalation, the external intercostal muscles contract, lifting the ribs and expanding the chest cavity. During forced exhalation, the internal intercostal muscles contract, aiding in decreasing the volume of the thoracic cavity.

Common Causes of Shoulder Pain When Breathing

Shoulder pain when breathing can be caused by a variety of factors, including musculoskeletal issues, respiratory conditions, and referred pain from other areas of the body. Here are some common causes of shoulder pain when breathing:

  • Muscle Strain or Injury: Overuse, trauma, or strain of the muscles in the chest, upper back, or shoulders can lead to pain that is exacerbated when you breathe.
  • Costochondritis: Costochondritis is the inflammation of the cartilage that connects the ribs to the sternum (breastbone). Inflammation in this area can cause sharp or aching pain that may worsen when taking deep breaths or moving the upper body.
  • Pleurisy: Pleurisy is the inflammation of the lining of the lungs and chest cavity. It often leads to sharp pain that is worsened by breathing, coughing, or sneezing. Infections, such as pneumonia, can cause pleurisy.
  • Pneumonia: Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that can cause pain in the chest and shoulders, particularly when breathing deeply. The pain is usually accompanied by other symptoms such as fever, cough, and difficulty breathing.
  • Pulmonary Embolism: A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot travels to the lungs and blocks blood flow. This can cause sudden, sharp pain in the chest or shoulder, especially when taking deep breaths.
  • Referred Pain: Sometimes, pain in the shoulder area may be referred from other parts of the body, such as the diaphragm, heart, or neck. Conditions like heartburn, heart attack, or neck problems can cause pain that is felt in the shoulder region and may be exacerbated by breathing.
  • Gallbladder Issues: Gallbladder problems, such as gallstones or inflammation, can cause pain that radiates to the right shoulder. This pain may worsen with deep breaths or movement.

Diagnosing Shoulder Pain When Breathing

Diagnosing Shoulder Pain When Breathing

Diagnosing shoulder pain when breathing involves a comprehensive evaluation by a medical professional. The goal is to determine the underlying cause of the pain and develop an appropriate treatment plan. Here’s an outline of the diagnostic process:

  • Medical History: The doctor will start by asking you about your medical history, including any recent injuries, illnesses, or conditions that might be contributing to the pain. They will inquire about the nature of the pain, its onset, duration, and any factors that make it better or worse.
  • Physical Examination: A thorough physical examination will be conducted to assess the range of motion, tenderness, and any signs of inflammation or injury in the shoulder area. The doctor may also examine the chest and back to check for related issues.
  • Breathing Assessment: The doctor will observe how your breathing affects the shoulder pain. They might ask you to take deep breaths or perform certain movements to see if the pain worsens during these activities.
  • Imaging Studies: Imaging tests can provide detailed information about the structures in the shoulder and chest. X-rays, MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), and CT (Computed Tomography) scans can help identify fractures, muscle injuries, joint issues, or other structural abnormalities.
  • Laboratory Tests: If there is suspicion of an infection or inflammation, blood tests might be ordered to assess markers of infection or inflammation in the body.

Preventing Shoulder Pain While Breathing

While some causes of shoulder pain when breathing are medical conditions that need proper diagnosis and treatment, several general tips and practices can help prevent or alleviate shoulder pain during breathing caused by musculoskeletal issues or poor posture. Here are some strategies you can consider:

  • Maintain Good Posture: Proper posture helps align your spine and shoulders, reducing the strain on muscles and joints. Sit and stand with your shoulders relaxed and your back straight. Avoid slouching or hunching forward.
  • Practice Deep Breathing: Breathing from your diaphragm (deep breathing) rather than shallow chest breathing can help reduce tension in the muscles around your shoulders and upper chest. Inhale deeply, allowing your diaphragm to expand, and exhale slowly.
  • Stretch and Strengthen: Regularly perform stretching and strengthening exercises to maintain flexibility and muscle balance in your shoulders, back, and chest. Focus on exercises that target the muscles that support good posture.
  • Avoid Overexertion: Be mindful of your activities and avoid overexertion or lifting heavy objects without proper technique. Use your legs and core muscles to help support your upper body during lifting.
  • Ergonomic Workstations: If you work at a desk, ensure that your workstation is set up ergonomically. Your chair, desk, and computer monitor should be at proper heights to encourage good posture.
  • Monitor Sleep Position: Sleep on your back or side with a supportive pillow that maintains the natural curve of your neck and spine. Avoid sleeping on your stomach, which can strain your neck and shoulders.
  • Warm-Up Before Physical Activities: If you engage in physical activities or exercises, always start with a proper warm-up to prepare your muscles and joints for movement.
  • Avoid Repetitive Movements: Repeatedly performing the same movement can strain your muscles and joints. Take breaks and vary your activities to prevent overuse injuries.

Medicines for Better Shoulder and Breathing Health

Medicines for Better Shoulder and Breathing Health

Medications can play a role in managing certain conditions that affect shoulder and breathing health. However, it’s important to note that medication recommendations should always come from a qualified healthcare professional after a proper diagnosis and evaluation of your specific medical condition. Here are some medications that may be prescribed for better shoulder and breathing health, depending on the underlying issues:

  • Pain Relievers: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen may be prescribed to relieve pain and reduce inflammation associated with musculoskeletal conditions or injuries that contribute to shoulder pain.
  • Muscle Relaxants: Muscle relaxants might be prescribed to alleviate muscle tension or spasms that can contribute to shoulder pain. These medications work by relaxing the muscles and reducing discomfort.
  • Corticosteroids: Corticosteroid injections can be used to reduce inflammation and pain in specific areas, such as the shoulder joint or surrounding tissues. They are commonly used for conditions like shoulder bursitis or rotator cuff tendinitis.
  • Bronchodilators: Bronchodilators are medications used to relax and open the airways, improving breathing in conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Inhaled Corticosteroids: Inhaled corticosteroids are commonly used to manage chronic respiratory conditions like asthma. They help reduce airway inflammation and improve breathing.
  • Antibiotics: If shoulder pain is due to an underlying infection, such as pneumonia, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection and alleviate related symptoms.
  • Anti-anxiety Medications: In cases where anxiety contributes to shallow breathing or respiratory discomfort, anti-anxiety medications may be considered to help manage anxiety and improve breathing patterns.


Shoulder pain when breathing is a fascinating reminder of the intricate connections within our bodies. It serves as a reminder that discomfort is often a signal that something needs our attention. By understanding the mechanics, exploring causes, seeking proper diagnosis, and implementing preventive measures, we can navigate this discomfort and find relief. Remember, you’re not alone in this journey, and seeking professional medical advice is a crucial step toward regaining comfort and well-being.

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