What Muscle Weakness and Pain in the Torso May Mean

Lung Cancer Signs: Page 5

By , Caring.com senior editor
99% helpful
Father's Hands
Image by Shutr used under the creative commons attribution license.

Muscle weakness

If you feel like even carrying groceries or pushing the lawnmower is too much effort, you'll likely decide you're just tired or under the weather. But persistent muscle weakness can be one of the very earliest signs of certain types of lung cancer.

How it feels: Like everything is harder to do. Climbing stairs and household tasks may feel doubly hard or even impossible, and when you exercise you may feel like you can only manage a fraction of your usual routine.

What causes it: A specific type of muscle weakness, known as Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome, occurs when lung tumors release autoantibodies that attack the muscles. Cancer cells can release chemicals that disrupt the normal activity of red blood cells, causing anemia, or lowering sodium levels and raising calcium levels in the blood. When lung cancer spreads to the brain, it can cause weakness on one side of the body.

What to do: Describe the weakness as specifically as you can, giving examples of activities that you can no longer perform easily. If you're older and the weakness could be a result of advancing age, make a clear distinction between what you're feeling now and how you've felt in the recent past.

Chest, shoulder, back, or abdominal pain

Thanks to the movies and public education campaigns about heart disease, it's almost a given to associate chest pain with a heart attack. However, it's important to consider lung cancer as a cause, particularly in people who don't have risk factors for heart disease.

How it feels: The chest or back pain triggered by tumor growth tends to take the form of a dull ache that persists over time. The ache may be in the chest or lung area, but it may also feel as if it's in the upper back, shoulder, or neck -- and it's easily confused with muscle pain. In some cases the pain is felt in the abdomen, making it easy to confuse with a digestive ailment.

What causes it: Lung cancer can cause pain through direct pressure from the tumor, or indirectly when the tumor irritates nerves traveling through the area. In some cases, chest, neck, and shoulder pain is "referred" when the brain incorrectly interprets signals from the tumor pushing on the phrenic nerve in the lungs. Small cell lung cancer can cause chest pain because it typically starts in the center of the chest in the bronchial tubes leading to the lungs and spreads rapidly, pushing on blood vessels and other organs. A specific type of tumor, known as a Pancoast tumor, forms at the top of the lungs and puts pressure on nerves, causing pain in the shoulder, in the armpit, or radiating down the arm.

What to do: Always call the doctor right away if you experience persistent unexplained chest, shoulder, back, or abdominal pain. Chest pain is a symptom in about one-fourth of people with lung cancer, yet it's most often attributed to other causes, such as heart disease.