Lung and Chest Pain: Perception and Mechanisms in the Absence of Nerves
By Lauren Amphlett

When we think of pain, we often associate it with injury or damage to a particular part of our body. However, the experience of pain is not always straightforward, especially when it comes to the lungs, as they have very few nerve endings compared to other parts of the body. This post aims to shed light on the mechanisms of lung and chest pain, including cardiac causes, and how lung pain is felt despite having very few nerves.

The Perception of Pain

Pain serves as a protective mechanism that alerts the body to potential harm. It is a complex process involving the nervous system, which includes peripheral nerves, the spinal cord, and the brain. Pain perception typically begins with the activation of nociceptors, which are specialised nerve endings that initiate the response to pain from stimuli. These nerve endings transmit signals through the peripheral nerves to the spinal cord and, ultimately, to the brain, where the sensation of pain is processed and perceived.

The Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system is part of the nervous system that controls involuntary functions within the body, such as heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, breathing, and temperature regulation. It operates mostly unconsciously, allowing your body to automatically respond and adapt to changes in the environment and maintain a stable internal state, known as homeostasis. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves are part of the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary functions in your body.

The sympathetic nerves are responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response, preparing your body for action during times of stress. They increase heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate.

The parasympathetic nerves help your body relax and recover, promoting the rest and digest response. They lower heart rate and blood pressure and facilitate digestion. Together, these nerves help maintain balance in your body, ensuring it responds appropriately to different situations.

Lung Anatomy and Nerve Distribution

Unlike the skin and muscles, the lungs have a relatively sparse distribution of nerve endings. The majority of nerves in the lungs are part of the autonomic nervous system. The lungs are primarily innervated by the vagus nerve, which carries sensory information from the lungs to the brain. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves regulate bronchial smooth muscle tone and mucus secretion.

Pain in the Lungs and Chest: Mechanisms and Causes

Despite having very few nociceptors (pain receptors), it is still possible to experience pain in the lungs and chest. This pain can be a result of various factors, including:

  • Pleural irritation: The lungs are surrounded by a double-layered membrane called the pleura. The pleura contains nociceptors that can become irritated by inflammation or infection, resulting in pleuritic pain – a sharp, stabbing sensation felt in the chest, which typically worsens with deep breathing or coughing.
  • Referred pain: The brain can sometimes misinterpret signals from the lungs or pleura, perceiving pain in nearby areas such as the chest, back, or shoulders. This is known as referred pain and can result from lung conditions like pneumonia, pleurisy, or pulmonary embolism.
  • Bronchospasm: Constriction of the bronchial muscles can lead to a sensation of chest tightness and difficulty breathing, which may be perceived as pain.
  • Lung tissue damage: Although the lung tissue itself has few nociceptors, severe inflammation or infection can cause damage to the surrounding tissues, leading to the perception of pain.
  • Cardiac causes: Chest pain can also be a symptom of heart-related issues, such as angina or a heart attack. Pain from cardiac causes is often described as a pressure, tightness, or squeezing sensation in the chest. It can sometimes radiate to the arms, neck, jaw, or back. It is essential to seek immediate medical attention if you suspect your chest pain is heart-related.

Please note the above list is not exhaustive. If you are experiencing pain that is new for you, has not been investigated or is in any way different from your usual symptoms – please seek medical advice.

Further reading on lung conditions not related to aspergillosis can be found via the following resources:

  • British Lung Foundation: A UK-based charity that offers extensive information on various lung conditions, their symptoms, and available treatments. Visit their website at https://www.blf.org.uk/ for patient guides and support.
  • Asthma UK: A charity focused on helping people with asthma understand and manage their condition. Their website (https://www.asthma.org.uk/) offers information on asthma symptoms, triggers, treatments, and personal stories from patients.
  • COPD Foundation: A non-profit organisation dedicated to improving the lives of those affected by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Their website (https://www.copdfoundation.org/) provides a wealth of information on COPD, including educational materials, management strategies, and support groups.

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