Back Pain As a Symptom of Lung Cancer

It's common for people to experience back pain with lung cancer

man holding his back and sitting on exam table
Back pain as a symptom of lung cancer.

Back Pain and Lung Cancer Can Go Hand in Hand

It’s common for people to experience back pain with lung cancer, or even have back pain as their first symptom of lung cancer. Of course, there are many causes of back pain that are more common than lung cancer. In addition, back pain in people with lung cancer may be related to their cancer or another cause such as arthritis. What causes back pain with lung cancer, and how does the pain differ from other causes of back pain?

Why Does Lung Cancer Cause Back Pain?

There are several ways in which lung cancer can cause back pain. The tumor alone may contribute to back pain by creating direct pressure on structures in the back. Cancer may also irritate nerves traveling through the chest or the lining of the lungs which can be interpreted by the brain as back pain.

Back pain also may be caused by the spread (metastasis) of lung cancer to bones in the spine. Roughly 30 to 40 percent of people with lung cancer experience bone metastases at some time during their illness.

The adrenal glands are small glands in the abdomen near the top of the kidneys. Lung cancer metastases to the adrenal glands occur in 40 percent of people with lung cancer and are yet another possible cause of back pain.

How Is Lung Cancer Back Pain Different From Other Causes of Back Pain?

Back pain related to lung cancer is often described as pain occurring in the mid to upper back.

Unfortunately, back pain due to lung cancer can be very similar to other causes of back pain, and it is important to talk with your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms.

Back Pain May Be Lung Cancer If...

If you have other symptoms along with back pain, it can be more likely that you are dealing with lung cancer.

Early symptoms of lung cancer may include a persistent cough, coughing up blood, shortness of breath, or general symptoms such as fatigue or unintentional weight loss.

Other symptoms that raise a red flag include back pain that is present at rest, pain that is worst at night, pain that occurs without any activity, or pain that is worse when you take a deep breath.

Lung cancer that is first noticed as back pain is often diagnosed after treatments such as physical therapy fail to make the pain go away. If you have pain that is persisting despite treatment be sure to make your doctor aware so she can recommend further evaluation. Keep in mind that the symptoms of lung cancer in women are often different of those found in men, and they symptoms of lung cancer in non-smokers are often different from those in people who smoke.

It can't be stressed enough that any of the above symptoms should alert you to talk to your doctor, and consider a second opinion if you aren't getting answers. At the current time, it's thought that the average person has a delay of almost 12 months between the onset of symptoms and the time a lung cancer diagnosed. Since lung cancer is most curable in the early stages of the disease, a timely diagnosis can make a big difference.

How Common is Back Pain With Lung Cancer?

It isn’t known how often back pain is the first symptom of lung cancer, though 25 percent of people have back pain of some form at the time of diagnosis. During the course of the disease, the majority of people will experience back pain of some type.

Treatment of Back Pain Related to Lung Cancer

The treatment of back pain related to lung cancer depends on upon the underlying cause. If the pain is related to pressure from the tumor, treatments to decrease the tumor size such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be considered. If bone metastases are present and causing pain, combining radiation therapy and medications known as bisphosphonates can work very well to decrease pain and improve comfort.

Physicians can almost always keep people comfortable even with severe pain, but it's important that you let your doctor know. Unfortunately, too many people try to be "good patients" and "hold out" on pain control when they could be otherwise comfortable. The risk of becoming addicted to pain medications is very low when they are used as prescribed for managing cancer pain. In addition, you don't have to worry that using pain medications now will lessen the chance that they will work for you if you "really need them" later on.There are plenty of options available for treating cancer pain.

Be Your Own Advocate

As a final note—whether you have back pain due to lung cancer or some other cause, make sure to advocate for yourself as a patient. Talking to people with lung cancer it becomes quickly apparent that it is the rule rather than the exception for the diagnosis to missed or delayed, especially in those who do not have classic risk factors for lung cancer. Currently, the majority of people who are diagnosed with lung cancer are not current smokers, and 1 in 5 lung cancers in women occur in those who have never smoked a single cigarette. In fact, lung cancer in never smokers is the 6th most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.


Henson, L., Gomes, B., Koffman, J. et al. Factors associated with aggressive end of life cancer care. Supportive Care in Cancer. 2016. 24(3):1079-89.

Xiong, J., and P. Zhang. Cauda equina syndrome caused by isolated spinal extramedullary-intradural cauda equina metastasis is the primary symptom of small cell lung cancer: a case report and review of the literature. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine. 2015. 8(6):10044-50.

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