8 Things To Know About COPD Pain

While COPD isn’t necessarily a painful disease, there is some good evidence linking COPD to pain.

Here are 8 things to know about COPD related pain.

  1. Many people in the COPD community report pain. If you suffer from chronic pain and COPD, you are not alone. Various studies appear to show that the prevalence of pain reported among the COPD community ranges between 45% and 94%, and the prevalence of pain among those with severe COPD ranges between 21% and 77%. (1, 2) Overall, studies seem to show that patients with COPD were more likely to report chronic pain, chronic pain medicine use, and chronic opioid use compared to people with other chronic diseases. (3-5)
  2. There are many different types of COPD-related pain. It could be general aches and pains, headaches, and even chest pain. In one 2016 study of 67 COPD patients, 82.1% reported pain, while 53.7% reported chest pain. So, chest pain appears to be rather common. (1)
  3. Pain can easily impact the quality of your life. An interesting theory is that pain makes it difficult to sleep, and this may lead to anxiety and depression. Pain may also make it difficult to stay active, and this results in muscle weakness. The combination of these effects may result in fatigue and an increased feeling of shortness of breath. So pain, especially severe pain, may reduce the overall quality of life. Researchers are not sure whether pain treatment will improve quality of life, or if treating COPD will reduce pain.  (2, 5)
  4. The cause of COPD related pain is often difficult to determine. There are some pretty good theories out there. For instance, accessory muscles are muscles that are used to assist your normal muscles of inspiration. They are not meant to be used every day. So, chronic use of these muscles may cause them to become sore. Muscles may also become sore from coughing. In the 2016 study mentioned above, the researchers hypothesized that increased chest pain would correlate with increased loss of lung function, but this proved not to be true. (1) Headaches may be due to sinusitis or anxiety. Osteoporosis is also common among the COPD community, so this might cause arm, leg, hip, or even back pain.
  5. People with COPD appear to be under-treated for pain. In the same study of the 67 COPD patients referred to above, despite 82.1% reporting pain, only 39% reported that they were taking pain medicine. One theory here is that COPD patients may stay silent about their symptoms, including pain, because they simply learn to tolerate it, or because they believe there is nothing that can be done about it. So, this spotlights a potential concern for the COPD community. (1)
  6. COPD-related pain is treatable. Pain medicines often used to treat COPD-related pain include acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil). Generic options of these over the counter medicines are also available at a reduced cost. More severe pain can be treated with prescription pain medicines if necessary. This is not to say that pain medicine is the only solution for pain. Many experts agree that pulmonary rehabilitation, exercise, and staying active improve your overall physical well-being and reduce the feeling of shortness of breath, thereby reducing COPD-related pain. Diagnosing and treating the underlying cause of the pain may also help. For instance, sinusitis is sometimes associated with headaches and anxiety with chest pain.  So, diagnosing and treating these conditions, when they are present, may also reduce pain.
  7. COPD-related pain is barely recognized in COPD guidelines. This might further spotlight the lack of respect for pain among the COPD population. Some researchers have mentioned the need to update guidelines with better assessment tools for helping physicians better identify and properly treat COPD patients also suffering from pain.  So, these are just a few updates we might see to future COPD guidelines to help people live better with COPD. (1-2, 5)
  8. Researchers are hunting to learn more about COPD related pain. Some researchers believe that COPD-related pain is underdiagnosed because so little is known about what causes it. (1) Sure there are theories as noted above, but there may be something, perhaps something simple, that is being overlooked. To learn more about links between pain and COPD, further studies are ongoing. Ideally, this research will provide wisdom needed to help physicians help their patients live better and longer with COPD.

What to make of all this?

Again, COPD is not generally considered a painful disease, although it may be associated with pain, even chronic pain. If you suffer from pain, even pain that is mild and tolerable, make sure to talk to your physician about this. There may be a simple solution that allows you to live better with COPD.

view references
  1. Janssen, et al., "Prevalence of thoracic pain in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and relationship with patient characteristics: a cross-sectional observational study," BMC Pulmonary Medicine, 2016, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4823883/, accessed 8/17/17
  2. Lee, et al., "Pain and Its Clinical Associations in Individuals With COPD A Systematic Review," Chest, 2015, http://journal.chestnet.org/article/S0012-3692(15)38350-1/pdf. svvrddrf 8/18/17
  3. Roberts, et al., "Chronic pain and pain medication use in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: A cross-sectional study," Annuls of the American Thoracic Society, 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23952846, accessed 8/18/17
  4. Lohne, "Qualitative study of pain of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease," Heart Lung, 2009, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20457343, accessed 8/19/17
  5. Roberts, et al., "Chronic pain and pain medication use in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: A cross-sectional study," Annuls of the American Thoracic Society, 2013, http://www.atsjournals.org/doi/full/10.1513/AnnalsATS.201303-040OC, accessed 8/20/17
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