COPD Linked to Chronic Pain


Gina Garippo

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If you have COPD, you’ve probably worked with your doctor to manage symptoms like breathlessness and fatigue. But have you discussed pain? Chronic pain isn’t often talked about in guidelines for managing COPD, but experts are beginning to realize it’s a common symptom of the disease.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet know much about COPD-related pain. If you suffer from it, you don’t need experts to tell you that it’s real. However, recent studies have found that an estimated 60% of people with COPD deal with chronic pain. This is significantly more than those without COPD.

What’s more, people with COPD generally experience more pain than people with other chronic illnesses. And if COPD patients have more than one chronic condition, their risk for pain is greater.

The type of pain people with COPD describe varies. It can be constant or intermittent, sharp or dull, burning or aching. People with COPD often report feelings of pain in their chest, but pain also occurs in their neck, back, and other areas of their body.

The Chicken or the Egg?

Experts are still investigating the nature of the relationship between COPD and chronic pain. In one study, participants reported that they weren’t certain whether frequent breathlessness was the cause of COPD-related pain, or if the pain, in turn, caused the breathlessness. However, researchers believe pain plays a major role in a cycle of COPD symptoms.

Experts have found that pain is closely related to anxiety, which can be caused by fear of breathlessness. When both pain and anxiety occur, they reinforce the symptoms of COPD. Pain and anxiety can also contribute to poor sleep and depression, which, in turn, aggravate COPD symptoms.  

How to Break the Cycle

Because pain is not a well-recognized or well-researched symptom of COPD, there are no standard treatment guidelines for COPD patients. However, taking steps to reduce or manage pain can improve function and quality of life.

Talk with your doctor about developing a treatment plan for your pain. Steps that may help include the following:

  • Work to keep your COPD under tight control. Although it’s unclear whether managing COPD will reduce pain, some early study results indicate it can help.

  • Ask your doctor about medications that can help alleviate pain. There are many types of drugs that people with COPD use.

  • Try to relax. Techniques such as guided imagery or massage can help.

  • Consider alternative therapies for pain management, including tai chi, meditation, or acupuncture. These therapies can be used along with medication and other forms of treatment.

Key Takeaways

  • Studies show that about 60% of people with COPD deal with chronic pain.

  • The pain can be constant or intermittent, sharp or dull, burning or aching. It can occur in the chest, neck, back, and other areas.

  • Experts are still investigating the relationship between COPD and chronic pain. Controlling your COPD, taking medication, and trying alternative therapies may help with pain management.
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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Jan 16, 2018

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Medical References

  1. Chronic pain and pain medication use in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A cross-sectional study. Roberts, MH. Annals of the American Thoracic Society. August 2013;10(4):290-8;
  2. Qualitative study of pain of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Lohne, V., et al. Heart & Lung: The Journal of Acute and Critical Care. May 2010;226-34;
  3. Pain: Hope Through Research. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. August 30, 2013. (;
  4. Chronic Pain: Symptoms, Diagnosis, & Treatment. National Institutes of Health. Spring 2011. (;

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