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Could Your Chest Pain Be Pleurisy?

So much is happening inside of our bodies all the time. Involuntary muscles are flexing, neurons are firing, your heart is pumping… there’s constant motion that we never have to think about. So, when you start to feel discomfort with every breath, you take note.

What is pleurisy?

Pleurisy, sometimes called pleuritis, is a condition in which the thin layers of tissue that separate your lungs from your chest wall become inflamed. This inflammation not only makes you aware of this interaction, but it can also be quite painful. If you feel sharp chest pains or stabbing pains that worsen as you breathe or cough, pleurisy may be to blame.

What causes pleurisy?

To better understand this pleural disorder, we spoke with Raed Alalawi, MD, a pulmonologist at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix. He explained that most cases of pleurisy are related to a nearby viral or bacterial infection, such as pneumonia, in the lungs. Although infections are the most common, many conditions found in the area of the lungs can cause pleurisy, including tuberculosis, rib fractures, lung cancer, pulmonary embolism and even certain medications.

“Your lungs are a delicate machine,” explained Dr. Alalawi. “Any disturbance can create a chain  reaction which often include inflammation. It’s important that you get your discomfort evaluated so that the underlying cause can be identified. After all, pleurisy is just a symptom.”

Why does it hurt?

The pleural layers of your lungs are surrounded by thin pockets of fluid. When working properly, the surfaces glide gently and smoothly. When inflamed, the tissues become sensitive and can feel sticky and rough. Although the movement is small, the friction can be uncomfortable.

Of course, it’s not an option to simply stop breathing. During pleurisy, you will likely avoid deep breaths and other painful things like exercise and laughter. “Because pleurisy is often related to an infection, it’s not uncommon to develop a cough,” explained Dr. Alalawi. “This can worsen your discomfort significantly.”

Diagnosing pleurisy

Getting a diagnosis for pleurisy can help explain the pain, but it’s not the full story. Discovering the cause of your inflammation is an integral part of your evaluation. Diagnosing the underlying cause(s) could include blood tests and scans. Your doctor may recommend a CT scan, chest MRI or  a chest X-ray to get a closer look at the tissues and inflammation. In some cases, a biopsy may be recommended. These exams will help to diagnose the pleurisy and will help identify the underlying cause.

How is pleurisy treated?

How quickly you can get back to normal life will depend on the cause of your inflammation. However, life (normal or otherwise) will always require you to breathe. Measures to make you comfortable while you recover could include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen to reduce pain and inflammation. Antibiotics, antivirals and other medications could also be prescribed to fight infection. Dr. Alalawi emphasized that your prescription could differ based on treatment for the underlying cause and to follow your doctor’s recommendation closely.

Learning about your lung health is important, but anyone who has dealt with pleurisy will tell you that a little experience goes a long way. Work with a physician to get your body back to working quietly and smoothly.

Learn more about lung health with these other articles written with help from Banner Health experts.

Pulmonology and Asthma