Experiencing Chest Pain After Surgery

Chest pain should always be taken seriously, and that is especially true if you have recently had surgery. 

However, there's the chest pain that can mean you're having a heart attack and then there's pain that happens to be located in the chest. Knowing the difference is key to protecting your health and having a full recovery.

Senior man in the hospital after surgery
Jekaterina Nikitina / Getty Images

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:

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's 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

Never ignore this type of chest pain. Get medical attention immediately by calling 911 or going to the emergency room if you experience:

  • 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, other types of illness that may decrease the sensation of pain, or taking prescription pain medication may experience less severe chest pain with a heart attack. While it's rare, remember that some people feel much less chest pain than others during a cardiac event.

Following Blood Clot

If you had a blood clot form after surgery, known as a deep vein thrombosis or DVT, you have a higher risk of a blood clot that moves to your lungs, which is called a pulmonary embolism (PE) and is extremely serious. 

If you have a diagnosed blood clot (DVT), always consider chest pain a serious complication until proven otherwise. Seeking emergency treatment is the best course of action. At the very least, the surgeon should be made aware of new chest pain symptoms.

Following Surgery

If you had chest surgery, some level of chest pain is to be expected. The difference 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 had an incision in your chest
  • You had surgery on your heart or lungs or your heart, especially if the breastbone is cut like during open heart surgery
  • You had chest tubes placed

Typically, surgery-related chest pain doesn't cause the same symptoms as 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. (Ask your doctor how to decrease pain from 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 most chest tubes are temporary—pain typically improves after the tube is removed.

Surgery-related chest pain signs include:

  • Increasing pain with movement of the chest
  • Greatly increasing pain 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're having chest pain, 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 concerns that your pain isn't just due to healing from surgery, seek immediate treatment.

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Additional Reading
  • National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Chest Pain. Updated August 4, 2020.