Whether you are sick with a cold, suffering from allergies, or somehow irritated your throat, having a cough is never fun. In addition to the discomfort and annoyance of a cough, the act itself can place a lot of sudden force on the body, causing soreness and exacerbating other conditions, especially in the back. While you may not be able to stop a cough, back pain treatment can help you address underlying spinal problems that can make the experience worse.
How Coughing Works
Coughing is a reflex, or involuntary response, designed to help clear your airways when they are impeded by food, fluid, particles, or irritants. The act causes these blockages, along with mucus, to move up to your throat so that you can spit it out and help clear your chest. In order for this reflex to occur, two major things need to happen: your central nervous system senses something in your airway, and a motor component causes muscles to expand and contract in response.
Because a cough is usually involuntary, you cannot always control when or where it will happen. You also can’t isolate the muscles that it may cause to contract, which are mostly in the upper half of the body. The more movement there is when your upper body moves, the more likely it is that the spine can move, which may irritate any existing problems.
Most people change posture during a cough, with the shoulders hunching up and the body leaning forward, which can place additional pressure on areas that are already injured. This specifically impacts the lower back and may spread into the hips and legs if certain issues are present.
Even if you do not have an existing source of back pain, the motion itself may cause temporary pain. When muscles in the upper back contract forcefully, like during a cough, it can place additional pressure on the ribs and the joint that connects them to the spine, causing a jolt of pain. Over time, this could lead to problems in the neck and shoulder stemming from that joint. A similar process can occur in muscles in the lower back.
Common Causes of Back Pain When Coughing
In most cases, back pain during coughing that persists with each cough is a sign that there is an underlying problem with the spine being exacerbated by the motion. The best way to address this is to treat the problem with the spine itself. While many issues can cause pain during a cough, there are some specific conditions that are most often linked.
Between each bone in the spine sit intervertebral discs meant to cushion the spine and absorb shock. It is common for these discs to become less full over time and move out of place, or to be ruptured and misplaced during a trauma. This is known as a herniated disc and causes the disc’s material to impede on surrounding nerves, causing pain and discomfort.
Herniated discs can cause pain in the back as well as numbness and tingling. A common form of disc pain is sciatica, which causes these symptoms down the legs as well. These most often occur in the lower back, such as with sciatica, though they can appear anywhere on the spine.
The sudden movement of a cough may cause the disc to place additional pressure on surrounding nerves and cause sudden pain.
Muscle Strains and Ligament Sprains
In response to overuse or overextension, the tissues that surround the spine can become torn or injured and cause pain. In some cases, a cough itself can be sudden and strong enough that it is the root cause of the injury, or it can have started for another reason and been worsened by consistent coughing.
Sprains and strains often cause pain that intensifies with certain positions and activities, as well as back stiffness, muscle spasms, and tenderness.
As we age, our spinal columns naturally narrow, which places pressure on the spinal nerves. If this happens dramatically or very early in life, it is considered a condition that will require treatment, known as spinal stenosis. This narrowing places additional pressure on the nerves, especially when leaning forward, as you may during a cough.
Spinal stenosis can also cause numbness and cramping, pain in the back and legs, and problems with sexual function. Severe cases may lead to bowel and bladder problems or even a loss of leg function over time.
In extremely rare cases, lung cancer has been linked to lower back pain during a cough, as bone pain can indicate that the tumor has spread to nearby organs. Other signs of this condition would include coughing up blood, unexpected weight loss, difficulty breathing, wheezing, and fatigue.
Tips to Avoid Back Pain During a Cough
Since coughing is a reflex, it is often impossible to stop one once your body has decided it needs to cough. Depending on the cause of your cough, you may use cough drops and medication to suppress the action as much as possible, but everyone will need to cough at some point. If you need to cough and are worried it will cause pain or know that it will, you can be careful to limit the effects as much as possible.
One of the reasons coughs can be painful is that we instinctively hunch forward and round our spine in reaction, but this is one of the worst things you can do for back pain. Focusing on keeping our back arched can reduce pressure in the spinal discs and nerves for a less painful experience.
If you are struggling to keep your spine arched, look for something you can use to support yourself. This can be as simple as placing your hand on a desk or ledge during the cough, which will have a compressive effect on the spine and help it to remain stable until the cough passes.
While these tips can help an individual cough be less painful, you should always treat both the underlying cause of the cough as well as any underlying back conditions that may be contributing.
Avoiding Spinal Issues
Because no one can avoid coughing altogether, it is important to do your best to avoid any spinal misalignments and injuries that could contribute to pain when you do cough. Depending on the cause of your pain, you may be able to use simple home remedies to resolve any back pain, or you may need to seek professional treatment. Some of our best tips to maintain spinal health and avoid pain during coughing are below.
Use Lumbar Support
The lumbar is the naturally curved area in your lower spine, which is especially prone to injury. Supporting this part of your back can avoid long-term back pain as well as acute issues. Lumbar chair support can be easily added to desk chairs or cars where you may spend long periods of time, helping to keep the lower back stable and encouraging good posture. You can also sleep with a pillow under your knees to help the lumbar spine maintain its shape.
Cold and Heat Therapy
Targeting back problems with temperature-controlled therapy can be effective for a variety of ailments.
Cold therapy, from ice packs to cryotherapy, constricts the blood vessels and contracts the muscles, leading to a reduction in inflammation and associated pain. Applying an ice pack for 15- to 30-minute intervals can not only alleviate existing pain, but also be used as a preventative mechanism.
When muscle knots and spasms are a concern, heat therapy can help by widening the blood vessels and increasing circulation. A heat pack or a warm bath can help the muscles to relax and encourage blood flow and healing of any injured body parts.
While it may be tempting to avoid movement when your back hurts, staying active is actually recommended. A lack of movement can cause additional strain on the back and neck, while movement helps the blood to circulate and the body to heal. You don’t have to engage in strenuous activity, but something as simple as walking every day and doing some core-strengthening exercises can help relieve pain in the long term.
Many symptoms can be relieved with home remedies, but when there is a misalignment in the spine, they are bound to return. Working with an Atlanta chiropractor will help you to resolve these misalignments and ensure your spine is able to function properly. This can not only relieve the pain you are feeling now, but also help prevent future issues from arising.
If you are suffering from back pain, contact AICA Atlanta today to meet with one of our knowledgeable chiropractors. We will help you to identify the root cause of your pain and develop a customized treatment plan based on your needs and goals. Don’t hesitate to schedule your first consultation to understand what treatment will look like for you and begin creating a path towards less pain.