Did you wake up with shoulder blade pain again? It could be related to the upper body workout you did the other day. Or maybe you should chalk it up to simply getting older.
Whatever the case, if your shoulder pain seems to be worsening, don’t shrug it off. Although rare, your chronic shoulder pain could be an early sign of lung cancer.
Lung cancer is the third most common cancer in the U.S. and the leading cause of cancer death. Unfortunately, it’s also tough to catch early, especially when signs and symptoms are confused with other health problems.
Read on to understand why lung cancer sometimes causes shoulder pain and how this pain differs from other causes.
Why does lung cancer cause shoulder pain?
You may notice pain or weakness in your shoulder and chest, back, arm or hands. The cause of lung cancer-related pain can be several different reasons.
“One reason is due to referred pain,” said Archan Shah, MD, an interventional pulmonologist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center. “Referred pain means that pain starts in one area of the body, but you feel it in a different area.”
Some types of lung cancer are more likely than others to cause referred pain.
Pancoast tumor is a rare type of lung cancer that begins in the top part of the lungs called the superior sulcus and spreads to nearby areas of the body.
“Due to their location in the lungs, you may not have the typical lung cancer symptoms, such as respiratory issues,” Dr. Shah said. “Instead, you may experience shoulder blade pain, muscle weakness, tingling or facial sweating.”
The pain may also start in the shoulder and radiate to the head, neck and chest.
When a Pancoast tumor spreads outside your lung, it can grow into and press against nerves nearby. This squeezing causes shoulder pain but also can lead to a condition called Horner’s syndrome.
Horner’s syndrome affects nerves on one side of your face and can cause a droopy eye and smaller pupil size.
Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that is usually caused by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral that has tiny, needle-like fibers. When these fibers are inhaled, the inner lining of the lung and other organs become irritated and cause inflammation and scarring.
Other symptoms of mesothelioma may include shortness of breath, hoarseness and coughing, trouble swallowing and chest pain one side.
Metastatic lung cancer
Cancer that has spread to other areas of the body means it has metastasized. When this happens, it can damage bones, internal organs and nerves. In rare cases, it can affect your muscles too.
How is lung cancer shoulder pain different from other causes of shoulder pain?
Lung cancer shoulder pain can be difficult to distinguish from shoulder pain due to other causes.
The most common causes of shoulder pain include:
- Overuse injury or muscle strain
- Trauma or damage: dislocated shoulder, rotator cuff tear or SLAP tears
- Arthritis: rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis
- Frozen shoulder
- Bad posture
Less often, heart disease, liver disease or gallbladder disease can also cause shoulder pain.
“Shoulder pain is more likely a symptom of lung cancer if you also have symptoms like shortness of breath, a persistent cough, wheezing, hoarseness, fatigue and coughing up blood,” Dr. Shah said. “Unexplained weight loss is also a symptom.”
How is lung cancer diagnosed?
If you have concerns about shoulder pain, it’s better to be safe and talk to your health care provider before self-diagnosing.
If there is a chance your shoulder pain is lung cancer, it’s important to have a thorough checkup—even if you don’t smoke or work around asbestos.
How lung cancer is diagnosed can vary from person to person. Your provider may order imaging tests, such as a CT scan or X-ray, and may remove cells or biopsy the tissue or fluid from or around your lung.
[Also read “Lung Cancer Screening: What to Expect.”]
How is shoulder pain treated?
Treatment of shoulder pain will vary based on if the pain is related to lung cancer, the type of lung cancer or another condition or disease.
“Treatment options for lung cancer can vary based on the type of lung cancer, such as small cell lung cancer (SCLC) or non-small-cell lung cancer, and if the cancer has spread,” Dr. Shah said. “For example, if the tumor is growing near the top of the lungs, surgery may be necessary to remove the tumor or treat the tumor with radiation to relieve symptoms.”
Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing shoulder blade pain that doesn’t seem to be getting better. The chances that your shoulder pain is related to lung cancer are small, but it’s best to rule out other potential causes for your pain.
Concerned about shoulder pain?
Schedule an appointment with a primary care provider.