Experiencing Chest Pain After Surgery

Man in the hospital after surgery
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Chest pain should always be taken seriously, and that is especially true if you have recently had surgery. However, it is important to remember that chest pain can mean different things to different people. There is the chest pain that can mean a heart attack is happening and there is pain that happens to be located in the chest. Knowing the difference is key to protecting your health and having a full recovery.

The good news is that chest pain after surgery isn’t always a life-threatening emergency. Depending on the type of surgery you had, chest pain may be a normal part of the healing process, especially if your incision was in the chest area. Chest pain can also be a result of heartburn, anxiety or lung disease.

Types of Chest Pain

The most important type of chest pain you should know is the type of chest pain that could be a sign of a life-threatening cardiac problem. This type of chest pain isn’t caused by surgery pain, it is caused by the heart muscle experiencing reduced blood flow or by a blood clot that has lodged in the lung. Whether the pain is caused by a problem with the heart or the lungs, this is an extremely serious problem and must be treated immediately to prevent further damage or even death.

Life-Threatening Chest Pain Signs

This type of chest pain should never be ignored, and medical attention should be sought immediately by calling 911 or reporting to the emergency room:

  • Moderate to severe chest pain/pressure
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased pain with activity
  • Pain that spreads to the neck or jaw
  • Pain in the arm, especially the left
  • Pain that radiates from the chest into the back
  • Anxiety
  • Feels of doom or dread
  • Sweating
  • Sudden start of symptoms with no apparent cause

People with diabetes and people with other types of illness that may decrease the sensation of pain or people who are taking prescription pain medication may experience less severe chest pain in these cases . Keep this in mind, and remember that in a small number of cases the chest pain felt is reduced from what the average person experiences.

Following Blood Clot

Individuals who have a blood clot that forms after surgery, known as a deep vein thrombosis or DVT, have a higher risk of having a blood clot that moves to the lungs. A blood clot that moves to the lung is called a pulmonary embolism (PE) and is extremely serious. At the very least, the surgeon should be contacted and made aware of new chest pain symptoms, but seeking emergency medical treatment is the best course of action.

If you have a diagnosed blood clot (DVT), chest pain should always be considered a serious complication unless proven otherwise.

Following Surgery

If you had chest surgery, some level of chest pain is to be expected after your procedure. The difference here is that this type of pain is surgery pain that happens to be in the chest area, versus chest pain caused by a serious problem with the heart or lungs.

Pain in the chest is expected if you have had a surgery where the incision is made in the chest. If you have had a procedure on your lungs or your heart, especially one where the breastbone is cut like open heart surgery, you can expect to have pain in your chest . If you have chest tubes placed, you can expect there to be pain around the chest tube site.

Typically, surgery pain that is in the chest does not cause the same symptoms that are associated with a life-threatening heart or lung issue. While it may hurt to take a deep breath, the pain is usually only severe when something causes the chest wall to move, such as a cough or a sneeze, or physical activity. There are ways to decrease the pain that occurs when coughing or sneezing.

If you have a chest tube in place, your pain may be significant, especially when taking a deep breath or directly around the site of chest tube placement. This is normal and, thankfully, most chest tubes are temporary—pain typically dramatically improves after the removal of the tube.

Surgery-related chest pain signs include:

  • Increasing pain with movement of the chest
  • Pain greatly increases with sneezing or coughing
  • Increasing pain with deep breaths
  • Steadily decreasing pain as recovery continues
  • Improvement in pain with over the counter medications such as Ibuprofen
  • No difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • An increase in pain when lifting arms above the head

What to Do If You Experience Symptoms

If you are having chest pain, you must take these symptoms seriously. The presence of surgical chest pain does not mean you can’t have life-threatening chest pain as well. If you have any concerns that you may be experiencing something other than the pain of healing from surgery, seek immediate treatment.

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