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Lung Pain

Understanding the Symptom and Causes

By

Updated May 15, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

GP examining chest x-ray on tablet device.
Mike Harrington/Riser/Getty Images

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 of lung pain? 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 Mechanisms Cause Pain Near the Lungs?

Pain in the region of the lungs can be caused in several ways. 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, 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 the region of your lungs, but some of the more common ones include:

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 region of the lungs -- 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.

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.

Sources:

National Institute of Health. Medline Plus. Chest Pain. Updated 06/22/12. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003079.htm

National Institute of Health. Medline Plus. Pleurisy. Updated 07/23/11. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001371.htm

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