What are the Causes of Lung Pain?

What Can Cause the Pain in Your Lungs?

diagram of lungs wrapped in painful barbed wire
What could it mean if you are experiencing lung pain?. Istockphoto.com/Stock Photo©wildpixel

Lung pain isn’t an entirely correct term since the lungs themselves do not have pain receptors. Yet you may be concerned about pain that feels like it is in your lungs. What does lung pain feel like and what are the causes? Could lung pain be a symptom of lung cancer?

What Does Your Pain Feel Like?

When your doctor asks about your symptom of lung pain, she will ask what it feels like to you. Is it sharp, or is it dull?

Is it localized to one particular area, or does it feel diffuse throughout your chest? Is it constant, or does it come and go?  What makes it better, and what makes it worse?

What Mechanisms Cause Pain Near the Lungs?

Pain that is felt in the region of the lungs may have several causes. Some of these include:

  • Inflammation -– due to an infection or another condition that causes inflammation in the lungs and surrounding areas.
  • Irritation –- for example, irritation of the lining of the lungs (the pleura), such as occurs with pleurisy.
  • Pressure -– due to a benign or cancerous tumor in the lungs or chest cavity, or due to pressure from a tumor or inflammation around a nerve.
  • Chest wall pain -– such as strained muscles due to coughing, injuries, or pain related to an infection with shingles (pain can be present before a rash is noticed).

What are Some Conditions That Cause Lung Pain?

There are many possible conditions that may cause pain in your lungs, but some of the more common ones include:

  • Pleurisy -- an inflamed lung lining
  • Infections –- such as pneumonia, bronchitis, or a lung abscess
  • Asthma
  • Pulmonary embolism -- a pulmonary embolus occurs when a blood clot in the legs or pelvis (deep vein thrombosis) breaks off and travels to the lungs
  • Pneumothorax –- a collapse of a lung
  • Pleural effusion -– a build-up of fluid between the tissues that line the lungs
  • Benign and malignant tumors -– including lung cancer and mesothelioma (cancer involving the lining of the lungs)
  • Costochondritis –- inflammation in the rib joints
  • Heart disease -– sometimes pain from a heart attack and other heart conditions can be felt as lung pain
  • Acid reflux and esophageal spasm
  • Rheumatoid conditions, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis 
  • Hyperventilation

Questions Your Doctor May Ask

  • How long have you had lung pain?
  • Did your symptoms begin suddenly, or did they come on gradually over a period of time?
  • Is the pain sharp or is it vague and achy in character? (Pain related to inflammation of the lung lining is often sharp, whereas pain related to a tumor is often deep and achy.)
  • Is the pain localized to one spot, or do you feel it diffusely throughout your chest?
  • Does the pain get worse with a deep breath?
  • Have you had any recent infections, or have you had a fever?
  • Have you been coughing?
  • Do you have any pain in your legs?
  • What other medical conditions do you have, such as heart disease or lung conditions, or “autoimmune” conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis?
  • Do you have a family history of any heart or lung problems?
  • Have you traveled recently by plane or by car?

When is Lung Pain Cancer?

As noted above, many conditions can cause pain and discomfort in the lung region -- only one of which is cancer. Yet, because lung cancer is more treatable in the earlier stages of the disease, it is important to consider lung cancer as a possibility whether you have ever smoked or not.

Symptoms that increase the likelihood that lung pain is cancer include a history of smoking, a persistent cough, coughing up blood, hoarseness, and unexplained weight loss.

Become familiar with the early symptoms of lung cancer. It's also important to note that - just like with heart disease - the symptoms of lung cancer in women often differ from those in men. In addition, we know that the majority of women who develop lung cancer in 2016 are non-smokers, and at least 1 in 5 women with the disease have not smoked a single cigarette.

Diagnosis of Lung Pain

When you visit your doctor, she will take a careful history and perform a physical examination. Depending on the results, further tests may include:

  • Chest X-ray -- to look for signs of infection
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) -– to evaluate for a heart attack
  • Ct scan of your chest–- to look for tumors
  • Blood tests -– to rule out a heart attack, and to look for evidence of inflammation or conditions such as lupus
  • Echocardiogram -– to evaluate your heart valves, look for fluid around your heart, or detect heart damage

When to Call Your Doctor

If you are experiencing lung pain, it is important to make an appointment to see your doctor -– even if you feel there is a clear reason for your pain. You should call your doctor or 911 immediately if you feel lightheaded, if your pain came on suddenly or you are experiencing shortness of breath, if the pain feels like it is “crushing” in quality, or if it radiates down your arm, into your back, or into your jaw.


National Institute of Health. Medline Plus. Chest Pain. Updated 05/13/14. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003079.htm

National Institute of Health. Medline Plus. Pleurisy. Updated 09/10/15. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001371.htm

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