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 - Any condition which causes inflammation in the lungs, the lining of the lungs, or surrounding areas may produce what feels like lung pain.
  • Irritation - Irritation,  for example, irritation of the lining of the lungs (the pleura), such as occurs with pleurisy may produce pain which feels like it is in the lungs.
  • Pressure - Pressure in the chest cavity 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 may lead to "lung pain."
  • Chest wall pain - Pain which originates in the chest wall, including the skin, muscles, ligaments, and other tissues is fairly common. This type of pain can be produced by conditions such as trained muscles due to coughing, injuries, or pain related to an infection with shingles (note that pain is usually present before a rash is noticed with shingles).

    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 - Pleurisy refers to an inflammation of the tissues lining the lungs (the pleura.) This pain is generally increased with a deep breath, may be positional, and may feel sharp rather than dull.
    • Infections - Infections ranging from pneumonia to bronchitis, to a lung abscess can cause this type of pain.
    • Asthma - Many people recognize asthma when it occurs with wheezing, but asthma may have other symptoms as well. Some people only experience a cough (cough-variant asthma) and may experience pain in their chest due to repeated coughing. Pain which feels like lung pain may also be present when asthma is severe.
    • 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 pneumothorax, also referred to as collapse of a lung may cause pain.
    • Pleural effusion - A build-up of fluid between the tissues that line the lungs called a pleural effusion is a common cause of pain in this region.
    • Benign and malignant tumors - Cancers including lung cancer and mesothelioma (cancer involving the lining of the lungs) may cause pain as can benign lung tumors such as a hamartoma, the most common benign lung tumor.
    • Costochondritis - Costochondritis is a condition involving inflammation in the region where the ribs join the sternum (the breastbone.)
    • Heart disease - Sometimes pain from a heart attack and other heart conditions can be felt as lung pain.
    • Acid reflux - Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is an underrecognized cause of pain which is felt in the region of the lungs.
    • Esophageal spasm - Spasms in the esophagus can cause chest pain which may be felt as occurring in the lungs.
    • Rheumatoid conditions, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
    • Hyperventilation can lead to pain which can be very frightening.

    Questions Your Doctor May Ask

    Your doctor will ask you many questions in order to determine the source of your pain. Some of these may include:

    • 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 2017 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:

    • A chest X-ray to look for signs of infection
    • An electrocardiogram (ECG) to evaluate for a heart attack
    • A CT scan of your chest to look for tumors, a pleural effusion, evidence of infection, and more
    • 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.

    Sources:

    National Institute of Health. Medline Plus. Chest Pain. Updated 05/15/16. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003079.htm

    National Institute of Health. Medline Plus. Pleurisy. Updated 02/07/17. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001371.htm

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