What You Need to Know About Lung Cancer and Shoulder Pain

Shoulder pain can range from mildly annoying to downright debilitating, and there’s a wide variety of different issues, injuries, or illnesses that can cause it. While it’s relatively uncommon, some kinds of shoulder pain may actually be caused by lung cancer. While it’s rare, it’s important to understand the warning signs right away so you can effectively manage your health!

Although your shoulder pain is likely the result of a number of other issues—ranging from bursitis, a bicep injury, or a damaged rotator cuff—here’s what you need to know about the link between lung cancer and shoulder pain.

Understanding Shoulder Pain and Lung Cancer

There are a few different causes for shoulder pain as a result of lung cancer. It might be referred pain from lung tumors. Say a lung tumor is resting on a nerve that connects to the shoulder muscles. In this case, the body will send pain signals to the shoulders instead of the lungs.

It might also be the result of cancer spreading to the bones or malignant pleural mesothelioma—a type of lung cancer caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos.

But one of the most common explanations behind lung-cancer related shoulder pain are pancoast tumors and something called Horner’s Syndrome.

What are Pancoast Tumors?

Pancoast tumors are a form of lung cancer that grows near the top of the lungs in an area called the superior sulcus. They can be difficult to diagnose due to their location, and they don’t display the typical symptoms of lung cancer.

Because they are so close to the shoulders, they usually cause intense shoulder pain that radiates down the arm.

What Does Lung Cancer Shoulder Pain Feel Like?

Someone with pancoast tumors is also likely to experience Horner Syndrome. Horner Syndrome refers to a group of symptoms that include the following:

  • Drooping eye (on the same side of the body/lung with tumors)
  • Dilation of the eye
  • Intense shoulder pain
  • Excess sweating

But, depending on the exact cause of the shoulder pain from cancer of the lungs, symptoms may not look like this. Oftentimes, shoulder pain as a result of lung cancer just feels like regular shoulder pain.

If the shoulder pain has the following characteristics, it may be a sign that it’s cancer-related:

  • Worse at night
  • Occurs during rest or when still
  • Not associated with the loss of any other activity

While lung cancer may cause shoulder pain in specific cases, shoulder pain does not inherently indicate lung cancer. In fact, lung cancer is the cause of shoulder pain less than 3% of the time.

Common Lung Cancer Symptoms

Shoulder pain isn’t enough to indicate lung cancer. However, experiencing shoulder pain in addition to the common symptoms of lung cancer may warrant a doctor’s visit. These symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, hoarseness, coughing up blood, wheezing, and sudden weight loss.

Navigating a Lung Cancer Diagnosis

While these symptoms may be indicative of lung cancer, it is relatively unlikely. However, if you’re worried about your shoulder pain and are exhibiting Horner Syndrome symptoms, you should schedule a consultation with a shoulder specialist or your primary care physician.

After reviewing your symptoms, your doctor will most likely order some tests like a CT to get an internal look at your lungs. If they suspect cancer, they’ll do a biopsy to determine if there are cancerous cells within your lungs.

If cancer cells are found, your doctor will most likely conduct a genetic test. This will let them know what kind of cancer it is and determine any causes.

Treating Lung Cancer: Possible Treatment Plans

The five most common ways to treat lung cancer include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Surgery
  • Radiation
  • Targeted Drugs
  • Immunotherapy

However, its common to use a combination of different methods simultaneously to effectively treat lung cancer.

Worried About Your Shoulder Pain?

Then it’s time to schedule a consultation. Give me a call today or reach out on my website to learn more about my practice. I’ll help you get your shoulders back to feeling 100%.


The material contained on this site is intended for informational purposes only and DOES NOT CONSTITUTE THE PROVIDING OF MEDICAL ADVICE– it is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgment, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult with myself, a physician, or a qualified healthcare provider directly with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your health.