Pain With Deep Breathing

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What is pain with deep breathing?

Pain with deep breathing is a sensation of sharp, stabbing or burning pain when you inhale or exhale. The pain is usually sudden and intense. You may feel pain taking a deep breath on the left side, right side, in the center, or in the back. You may also notice the pain is worse in certain positions, such as when lying down. Another name for this type of pain is pleuritic pain.

Pleuritic pain isn’t lung pain because the lungs don’t have pain receptors. Instead, it gets its name from the pleura, which is the dual layer of moist tissue lining of the chest cavity. The pleura has pain receptors that react to trauma or inflammation in the chest. The pleura also has a nerve supply that involves the rib cage, rib muscles, and diaphragm. Trauma or inflammation in these areas can also trigger pleuritic pain.

Viral infections are the most common cause of pleuritic pain. Seek prompt medical care or contact your doctor for pain during breathing that starts over hours to days.

Some causes of chest pain with deep breathing can be serious and even life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have pain with deep breathing that starts suddenly or have any of these potentially serious symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Pain radiating to the jaw, neck, shoulders, back or arms
  • Shallow breathing
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Unexplained chest pain, pressure or tightness

What other symptoms might occur with pain with deep breathing?

Pain with deep breathing can occur by itself or with other symptoms, depending on the underlying problem.

Respiratory-related symptoms that may occur along with pain with deep breathing

Pain with deep breathing may accompany other symptoms affecting the respiratory system including:

  • Chest congestion or cough, which may be dry or produce mucous
  • Mild shortness of breath
  • Runny or stuffy nose

Other symptoms that may occur along with pain with deep breathing

Pain with deep breathing can also occur with conditions that cause symptoms outside the lungs and upper respiratory system. Symptoms in other body systems may include:

  • Loss of appetite

Symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening or serious condition

In some cases, pain with deep breathing can indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that requires emergency evaluation. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these potentially serious symptoms including:

  • Chest pain, pressure, fullness, tightness or squeezing
  • Fast or irregular heart rate
  • Pain or discomfort in the upper body, radiating from the chest or occurring alone
  • Pain with breathing that worsens when lying down and improves with standing or leaning forward
  • Shortness of breath, trouble breathing, rapid or shallow breathing, or needing to suppress breathing to prevent pain
  • Sudden, unexplained anxiety or sweating
  • Tearing sensation in the chest or abdomen

What causes pain with deep breathing?

Causes of chest pain with deep breathing can involve the respiratory tract or other organs and tissues in the chest and abdomen.

Respiratory causes of pain with deep breathing

Viral respiratory infections, including influenza (flu), are the most common cause of pain with deep breaths. Other respiratory causes of pain with deep breathing include:

  • Pleural effusion, which is a buildup of fluid in the pleural space—the area between the lining of the chest cavity and the membrane surrounding the lungs
  • Pleurisy, which is inflammation of the lining of the chest cavity

Other causes of pain with deep breathing

Problems in other organs and tissues in the chest and abdomen can also cause pain with deep breaths. This includes:

  • Panic attacks
  • Rib trauma and costochondritis, which is inflammation of the cartilage between the ribs

Serious or life-threatening causes of pain with deep breathing

In some cases, pain with deep breathing may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention. PE is the most common of the serious causes of pleuritic pain. Up to 20% of people who go to an emergency room with pleuritic pain have a PE. Other serious causes include:

  • Aortic dissection, which is a tear and separation of the layers of the aorta’s wall
  • Lung cancer and other malignancies in the chest wall
  • Pleural effusion

How is the cause of pain with deep breathing diagnosed?

Your doctor will perform a thorough evaluation of your medical history, family history, medications you take, and ask you detailed questions about your symptoms. Based on this information, your doctor will likely order tests to determine the cause of your pain; these may include:

  • Blood tests and blood oxygen levels
  • Pulmonary function tests, and tests to check for blood clots in the lungs
  • Visual exams of the lungs and chest cavity, such as bronchoscopy or thoracoscopy

How is pain with deep breathing treated?

Treatment for pain with deep breathing depends on the underlying cause. Once your doctor determines the cause of your pain, together you can determine a treatment plan to address it. As with any condition, early diagnosis and following your treatment plan improves outcomes.

What are the potential complications of pain with deep breathing?

The potential complications of pain with deep breathing depend on the underlying cause. Because some of the causes are very serious, failure to seek diagnosis and treatment can result in severe complications, permanent damage, and even death. Once your doctor diagnoses the underlying cause, you can reduce the risk of potential complications by following your treatment plan.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 12
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Pleural Disorders. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/pleural-disorders
  2. Pleural Effusion. Merck Manual Professional Version. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/pulmonary-disorders/mediastinal-and-pleural-disorders/pleural-effusion
  3. Pleurisy. Cedars-Sinai. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/p/pleurisy.html
  4. Pleurisy. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pleurisy/symptoms-causes/syc-20351863
  5. Reamy BV, Williams PM, Odom MR. Pleuritic chest pain: sorting through the differential diagnosis. Am Fam Physician. 2017 Sep 1;96(5):306-312.