It’s possible for shoulder pain to be an early indicator of some types of lung cancer. If the pain is caused by a tumor, it will usually be accompanied by other symptoms of lung cancer.

You may typically associate shoulder pain with a physical injury. It’s often caused by something like an injury, tendonitis, or arthritis. That said, it can also be a symptom of lung cancer, and it may be the first noticeable symptom.

Lung cancer can cause shoulder pain in different ways, including tumor growth and pinched nerves.

Read on to learn about the types of lung cancer that can cause shoulder pain.

A Pancoast tumor is a rare form of lung cancer. Shoulder pain is its primary symptom, as well as pain in the inner arm and the hand. These symptoms are very specific and referred to as Pancoast syndrome.

A Pancoast tumor is located at the top of the lung, where it can pinch certain nerves. This can cause pain that radiates to the upper back and arms, including the shoulders.

It does not cause the usual symptoms of lung cancer like cough, chest pain, or shortness of breath. The name refers to the location of the tumor, which is typically non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) like adenocarcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma

Pancoast tumors are rare, accounting for between 3-5% of lung cancer cases.

Pancoast tumors can also lead to a cluster of symptoms referred to as Horner’s syndrome, which can include shoulder pain.

But, the more defining symptoms involve the eye and result from damage to the sympathetic nerves leading from the brain to the face and eyes.

Tumors in the lung or chest are not the only cause of Horner’s syndrome. It can result from a large number of conditions that damage the nerve fibers leading to the face and eyes.

About 5% of cases are congenital, meaning they occur at birth. The cause of these cases is thought to be genetic but can also be related to things like physical trauma or stroke.

Malignant mesothelioma is a cancer that starts in the mesothelium, which is the lining around certain organs. When the affected lining is in the chest surrounding the lungs, the cancer is called pleural mesothelioma.

The main risk factor for pleural mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. The number of cases has been dropping in the United States during the past two decades, but there are still about 3,000 new cases each year.

In one study, about 14% of the participants reported shoulder pain as the first symptom of mesothelioma.

According to the National Cancer Institute, more than one-half of lung cancer diagnoses are made at the advanced stage when cancer has spread (metastasized) beyond the lung.

This is called metastatic or advanced lung cancer, classified as stage 4.

Metastatic lung cancer can, in rare cases, also cause shoulder pain. If shoulder pain does occur, it can be a signal that lung cancer has spread and damaged your muscles as well.

Shoulder pain from lung cancer is quite similar to other forms of shoulder pain. Because of this, it might be difficult to determine the cause of your shoulder pain.

If you’ve recently fallen or injured your shoulder in some way, lung cancer is unlikely to be the cause of your shoulder pain. There are many reasons for shoulder pain that aren’t lung cancer.

Lung cancer is more likely to be the cause of your pain if you’re a smoker, and your pain:

  • occurs during rest
  • isn’t associated with any strenuous activity involving the shoulder
  • happens at night
  • doesn’t resolve itself after a few weeks

Your shoulder pain is also more likely to be a symptom of lung cancer if you have other lung cancer symptoms as well.

People who have shoulder pain from lung cancer often describe it as radiating pain from the shoulder down their arms to their hands. There may also be numbness or tingling. At other times, it can feel like a deep ache.

Lung cancer frequently causes chest pain as well. Sometimes, this chest pain is a result of bouts of coughing.

In other cases, the pain of lung cancer is a result of a large tumor pressing on other structures or growing into the chest wall and ribs.

Tumors in the lungs can also press on blood vessels and lymph nodes. That causes a buildup of fluid in the lining of the lung, and it can cause pain or shortness of breath.

As mentioned, if you have shoulder pain, the odds are you don’t have lung cancer. A variety of health conditions cause shoulder pain, including:

  • minor injury
  • poor posture when sitting or standing
  • a frozen shoulder, or stiffness and pain in the shoulder joint
  • a broken arm or broken collarbone
  • disorders of the rotator cuff
  • tendonitis
  • osteoarthritis
  • a dislocated shoulder
  • problems with the AC joint (acromioclavicular joint) at the top of the shoulder
  • bursitis
  • an overactive thyroid, or hyperthyroidism

Your doctor’s first step in treating your shoulder pain will be to pinpoint its cause. Your doctor will first review your symptoms with you. They’ll then likely order various tests to explore possible causes.

Treatment for shoulder pain from lung cancer

If your doctor suspects lung cancer, they’ll order imaging tests like a CT or PET scan. They may also want to take tissue for a lung biopsy.

Doctors can perform lung biopsies in two different ways. They may pass a needle through the skin to your lungs and remove a small amount of tissue. This is called a needle biopsy.

Alternatively, your doctor may use bronchoscopy to perform the biopsy. In this case, your doctor inserts a small tube with an attached light through your nose or mouth and into your lungs to remove a small tissue sample.

If cancer cells are found, your doctor may conduct a genetic test to determine the type of lung cancer and possible underlying causes.

If you have lung cancer, your doctor may use a variety of treatments based on your specific circumstances, including chemotherapy, radiation, and targeted drugs.

Doctors will often use more than one method to treat lung cancer. For example, they might prescribe chemotherapy or radiation to shrink a tumor before surgery. They may also try a different method if the first one doesn’t work.

Scientists are exploring new treatment options for lung cancer that offer hope for better outcomes. Two of the most promising ones are gene therapy and immunotherapy.

Treatment for shoulder pain from other causes

If your shoulder pain isn’t due to lung cancer, it’s important to determine the cause. This will help your doctor come up with a treatment plan.

For example, they may recommend physical therapy if you have shoulder pain due to tendonitis.

If you have shoulder pain due to a frozen shoulder (a symptom of diabetes), your doctor may recommend a combination of glucose-lowering drugs and a low carbohydrate diet.

You can manage shoulder pain properly if you deal with its underlying cause. If your doctor diagnoses you with lung cancer, it’s important to get the best treatment available.

You can try home treatments for your shoulder pain while you’re waiting to see your doctor:

  • Avoid using your injured shoulder.
  • Try icing your shoulder for 15-20 minutes at a time. This may help reduce pain and swelling.
  • Try wrapping your shoulder with an elastic bandage. Using compression can help you avoid overusing your shoulder.
  • Elevate your shoulder above your heart as much as possible. You can use pillows to help you with this.

When should I be worried about shoulder pain?

Most forms of shoulder pain aren’t symptoms of lung cancer. But shoulder pain is a commonly overlooked symptom of lung cancer.

If you experience shoulder pain and have other symptoms of lung cancer or are at high risk for it, don’t delay in speaking with your doctor.

Early diagnosis is the key to getting effective treatment for lung cancer.

How long should my shoulder hurt before going to the hospital?

This can really depend on the cause and severity of your pain, but generally, if your pain is severe and doesn’t improve in two weeks, or you are having problems moving your shoulder or arm, go to the emergency room.

Can lung cancer start with shoulder pain?

Shoulder pain can be an early symptom of mesothelioma.

What are the first signs of lung cancer?

Early lung cancer signs may include:

  • shortness of breath, often mild and with activity
  • a persistent cough
  • body pain
  • hoarseness
  • coughing up blood
  • losing weight without a reason

Usually, shoulder pain is caused by something like a physical injury, a strain, or arthritis. But, in some cases, it can be a sign of lung cancer.

Different types of lung cancer can cause shoulder pain in different ways. Sometimes, it can be the first sign that something is wrong.

If your pain isn’t going away despite various home remedies, or your pain is severe, see a doctor to determine the cause.