What to Do if Coughing Causes Lower Back Pain

Learn why coughing hurts your back and how to fix it

By Coach E

why coughing hurts your lower back and how to fix it

Is lower back pain from coughing taking your cold from annoying to downright painful? I’ll teach you why the two are connected and a simple trick to avoid the pain.

If you’ve struggled with low back pain, you’ve probably experienced this at one point or another. You go to sneeze or cough and all of a sudden your back pain flares up.

lower back pain when coughing

When you’ve got a cough from a cold or allergies, you’re already not at operating at your best. Low back pain from coughing can take things over the edge and make your day miserable.

The bright side is, the pain can be avoided.

It just requires you to learn a bit about the nature of your back pain and incorporate some strategies to avoid exacerbating your symptoms.

Why Do I Get Lower Back Pain When Coughing?

One of my Spine Control customers recently emailed me with this question and I wanted to address it because it’s a common issue for people who are dealing with low back pain.

It’s frustrating when you’ve been making progress and are feeling good, only to have a coughing fit set back your progress and flare up your back pain symptoms.

Before we can really understand the “why” of this question, we’ve got to understand that there are different types of back pain with different motions that can exacerbate pain.

back pain causes

3 Major Back Dysfunctions

There are 3 major categories of back issues – flexion dysfunction, extension dysfunction, and compression dysfunction.

If you’ve got flexion dysfunction, movements that involve flexing or bending forward are the type that will aggravate your low back pain symptoms. This might be sitting in a flexed posture at a desk or flexing at the hips to pick something up.

back pain flexed posture golf

If you’ve got extension dysfunction, movements that involve extending through the spine will be problematic for you. That might simply be standing and walking around or squatting or lifting with an extended back.

back pain lifting barbell

In the last type, compression dysfunction, movements that cause weight to bear down through your spine will aggravate your symptoms. That might just be the force of gravity causing compression through your back, or from carrying heavy bags or toting your kids around.

back pain carrying baby

Probably because we spend so much time sitting, flexion dysfunction is the type most people report [1].

Depending on what type you have, different strategies will help relieve or prevent any coughing low back pain you might experience.

The Anatomical Reasons “Why”

When people cough, we tend to go into flexion. That’s because when you cough, your abdominal muscles engage. These muscles are flexors of the spine.

muscles of the abdomen anatomy

So when you cough because there’s some junk in your lungs, your abs engage to help expel it, and they pull your spine forward into flexion.

Because of this, it’s not surprising that low back pain from coughing is more likely to be an issue for people with flexion dysfunction and because flexion dysfunction is the most common type of low back pain, coughing is a common aggravator.

It’s also an issue for folks with compression dysfunction because any strong muscular contraction in the torso will probably add to the compression forces and cause symptom aggravation.

But if you’ve got extension dysfunction, a cough might actually give you some relief! As your abdominals fire and pull you into flexion, it can relieve some pressure off your aggravated disc or ligament and may even ease the pain.

How to Avoid the Pain

Now that we understand a bit more about how a cough could suddenly throw you into a back spasm, we can learn how to prevent it from happening.

The strategies will differ based on what type of low back pain you’ve got, so it’s important you take a look at your symptoms and understand the root cause.

If you have flexion dysfunction, your strategy will be to avoid letting a cough pull you forward into flexion. The next time you feel a cough coming on, stand up tall through your spine and even go into a little bit of extension.

flexion dysfunction low back pain when coughing

If you’re sitting down, you can put your hands behind your low back and lean into them. Coughing from this position will help you avoid an exacerbation of your symptoms.

If compression dysfunction is giving you trouble, you want to avoid strong abdominal contractions when you cough. To help with this, place your hands on your hips and push your chest up. Allow your shoulders to shrug and try to cough from your upper back.

compression dysfunction low back pain when coughing

Assuming this position the next time you feel a coughing fit coming on will help reduce compression on any structures in your lumbar spine that are irritated and painful.

These simple postural adjustments will help prevent that irritating cough from causing big setbacks in your low back pain progress.

If you aren’t sure what type of low back pain you’re dealing with, I’ve created a simple assessment to help you discover the root cause (click here to take the assessment).

Take the assessment, and then try to adjust your body position when you’re coughing based on what you find out.

That way, the next time you’ve got a cough, you can avoid your back symptoms flaring up. You need to focus on getting over your cough – not dealing with a new low back pain episode!

About the Author

Eric Wong (aka Coach E) is the founder of Precision Movement and has a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo. He's been a coach since 2005 and spent his early career training combat athletes including multiple UFC fighters and professional boxers. He now dedicates himself to helping active people eliminate pain and improve mobility. He lives in Toronto (Go Leafs Go!) with his wife and two kids and drinks black coffee at work and IPAs at play. Click here to learn more about Eric.