Sneezing and Back Pain (Learn the Right Way to Sneeze)


Have you ever injured your back by sneezing? It’s getting cooler here in Central Florida, and with colder weather comes cold and flus, right? People are packed inside more with other people who are sick and then they in turn get sick. You actually don’t get sick from being outside in the cold. A lot of times you get sick because your immune system is lowered, and you are around people who have all these other sicknesses and conditions. And then along with that comes sneezing, right? I’d like to talk a little about sneezing because everyone out there has sneezed and sneezing is an incredible source of lower back pain.

When you sneeze, there’s a right way to sneeze and a wrong way to sneeze. We’re going to talk about the wrong way first and what it does physiologically when you’re actually sneezing. When you sneeze, you’re taking a big burst of air and then you blow out that air really hard. So, you’re expanding your thoracic cavity because your thoracic cavity has to expand. At the onset of it, you’re taxing the muscles in the joints that are in your thoracic spine. Most people will lean forward at the waist when they sneeze. And when they do that, they’re increasing the amount of pressure on the discs in their spine. Something happens along with that sneeze, and it’s an increase of something called intrathecal pressure.

Surrounding your spinal cord itself, which is inside your spinal column is the thecal sac, which is the outer covering of your spinal cord. And when you cough, or sneeze, or strain, you’re increasing that pressure. So now you’re pressurizing the disc, your pressurizing this intrathecal space, you’re increasing the amount of tension and pressure on those muscles, and it’s like designed to cause a back injury. We need to talk to you about what you can do to offset that because it’s a real thing. We have patients who come in and they say, “I just sneezed, Dr. Merrill. I was just standing there in line at the grocery store and I sneezed and now I need you, now I need somebody, now what happened here?” This is because most people lean forward at the waist and cover their mouth and they sneeze and that’s the wrong way to do it.

We don’t want that flexion posture (bending forward) that’s going to get us in big trouble. So, what DO we want to do? We want to basically dab. Just like the dance move, you put your face in the crook of your elbow, head down, standing up tall. You have to dab, which is “chicken wing” it. You want to catch it into your chicken wing there. And then you want to take that other hand and hold it on to something so that you are still standing tall and leaning on something. You’ve a good curvature of your back still, and you’re catching your sneeze so that you’re not making a mess to everybody else, but you’re supporting yourself too.

Sneezing properly in this way takes some of the pressure off the discs. It takes some of the pressure off the muscles, it catches the sneeze, and that is how to sneeze appropriately. There are not a whole lot of people talking about how to sneeze right and sneeze wrong, but that’s how you do it. So just a ‘dab’ and then put that hand down and grab on and hang on so that it’s not quite so violent. Sneezing properly is going to protect your back when you actually do have to sneeze during this cold and flu season.

About Dr. Merrill

headshot of Dr merrill
Dr. Andrew Merrill is a passionate active clinician and owner of Nightlight Chiropractic Orlando where him and his team treat hundreds of patients each month. With a strong background in exercise science from Stetson University, clinical skills from Palmer College of Chiropractic, and continued postdoctoral training in spinal disc injuries and clinical nutrition, Dr. Merrill is very well versed in the healthcare landscape. With topics ranging from "what to do for common ailments" to "why the medical system is failing you" Dr. Merrill and this blog in particular aim to keep readers up to date on what the research shows and how you can put it into practice NOW to keep yourself healthy for a lifetime.