What causes lower back pain when coughing?

Lower back pain is a fairly common symptom. Coughing may worsen existing lower back pain for some people, whereas for others, lower back pain may only become noticeable when they cough.

Coughing can cause a person to lean forward slightly. This position can put stress on the lower back and may displace the vertebrae, or spinal bones, making lower back pain worse.

In this article, we cover some of the possible causes of lower back pain when coughing, as well as treatment options and when to see a doctor.


Below are some of the most common causes of back pain when coughing.

Disk herniation

Man coughing in the street who may have lower back pain
A person may only experience lower back pain when they cough.

Between the spinal bones are protective disks that cushion the spine and act as shock absorbers. Due to normal wear and tear, these disks can slip out of place or protrude. Doctors call this disk herniation.

An article in the European Spine Journal reported that people with severe sciatica were more likely to have disk herniation if their leg pain became worse when coughing.

Sciatica is pain that results from the irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve.

Sometimes, a herniated disk presses on the nerve roots that make up the sciatic nerve in the lower back and legs.

Disk herniation can cause tingling and numbness down the lower back and in one or both legs. Severe disk herniation can lead to symptoms such as incontinence of the bowel or bladder.

To relieve the pain of disk herniation, a person can try resting the back, taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and applying a cloth-covered ice pack for 10 minutes several times per day.

In severe cases, a person may need surgery to repair the herniated disk.

Learn more about disk herniation here.

Muscle strain or ligament sprain

Sometimes, a bout of intense or sudden coughing can put unexpected pressure on the back. This pressure can lead to a temporary injury, such as a muscle strain, which doctors may refer to as a pulled muscle.

The pain can become more intense with certain positions or activities, including coughing. A person may also experience back stiffness, muscle spasms, or muscle tenderness.

Taking NSAIDs, resting the back for a day or two, avoiding postures and positions that worsen the pain, and applying a cloth-covered ice pack to the affected area can all help promote recovery.

If the symptoms do not subside within 4–6 weeks, however, a person should see their doctor.

Learn more about strains and sprains, including the differences between them, here.

Spinal stenosis

As a person ages, their spinal column starts to narrow, and this can put more pressure on the spinal nerves.

Being in certain positions, such as leaning forward when coughing, can put even more pressure on the nerves and cause lower back pain.

Spinal stenosis can also cause numbness or cramping pain in the lower back and legs. It may also affect sexual function, cause problems with bowel or bladder function, and, in severe cases, lead to loss of leg function.

To reduce the effects of spinal stenosis, a person can try exercising to build up the muscles in the back to help support and strengthen it.

It may also help to take NSAIDs or prescription medications to relieve muscle spasms. Some doctors may recommend steroid injections and possibly even surgery if the symptoms are severe.

Lung cancer

Lung cancer is a rare but possible cause of lower back pain when coughing. Experiencing bone pain can indicate that the condition has spread to nearby organs.

Some other symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • coughing up blood
  • losing weight unexpectedly
  • finding it hard to breathe
  • wheezing
  • fatigue

The treatment options for lung cancer depend on the severity of the condition. Typical treatments include radiation and chemotherapy to shrink the tumor and surgery to remove it.

Learn more about lung cancer, including the different stages, here.

Home remedies

Woman swimming in a pool for lower back pain
Swimming may help reduce muscle tension in the back.

A person can try several home remedies to help improve their lower back pain. The following techniques may help:

  • Applying a cloth-covered heat or ice pack for 10 minutes at a time several times per day.
  • Resting the back for no longer than 2 days. Resting for too long can cause the muscles in the back to tighten, which may worsen the pain.
  • Taking NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, to relieve discomfort.
  • Engaging in low impact activities, such as walking or swimming. These can help reduce muscle tension in the back and relieve inflammation.
  • Practicing “bracing” techniques when coughing, such as putting a pillow on the stomach and holding it tighter during a cough. This method can minimize the pressure on the back by reducing its curving action when coughing.

Some people have also found relief from lower back pain by trying alternative therapies, such as massage and acupuncture.

When to see a doctor

A person should seek emergency medical care if they experience any symptoms that indicate that they may have severe nerve compression or illness. Such symptoms include:

  • a change in bowel or bladder function
  • unusual sensations in the legs or “saddle” area of the pelvis
  • very high fever (above 103°F or 39.4°C) along with coughing and lower back pain
  • weakness in the legs or arms

These symptoms may require emergency antibiotic treatment or even surgery to relieve nerve compression.

Other symptoms that indicate that a person should visit a doctor include:

  • back pain that does not improve with home remedies
  • back pain that limits everyday activities
  • tingling or numbness that seems to come and go

A doctor may recommend seeing a specialist if symptoms persist.


Experiencing lower back pain when coughing may not happen often. However, if it is a common occurrence, it may indicate the presence of an underlying health condition.

If symptoms persist or are severe, a person should seek medical attention.

A variety of home remedies and medical treatments are available to help relieve lower back pain.

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