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 healthcare provider 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is it normal to have trouble breathing after surgery?

    It can be difficult to take deep breaths after surgery because you feel weak and sore. If you underwent chest or abdominal surgery the pain may be worse. However, it’s important to practice deep breathing despite this discomfort. If you avoid coughing or breathing deeply, mucus that needs to be cleared from your airways can linger, which could lead to an infection.

  • How do I know if I have a blood clot after surgery?

    Typically, a blood clot causes swelling in the area where the blood clot is. You may have pain or tenderness and discoloration in the leg. If the clot moves to your lungs and develops into a pulmonary embolism, you might have sudden chest pain and shortness of breath. See a doctor as soon as possible if you think you have a blood clot.

  • Is it normal for your chest hurt to hurt after surgery?

    Chest pain is very common. Even if your surgery wasn’t near the chest, you may have muscle soreness from lying on the operating table or because you're having trouble taking a deep breath post-surgery. If you can't manage pain with medication or if it lasts longer than your surgeon estimated, call your doctor.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Fu R, Li SD, Song CX, et al. Clinical significance of diabetes on symptom and patient delay among patients with acute myocardial infarction-an analysis from China Acute Myocardial Infarction (CAMI) registry. J Geriatr Cardiol. 2019;16(5):395-400. doi:10.11909/j.issn.1671-5411.2019.05.002

  2. Bilora F, Ceresa M, Milan M, Sarolo L, Prandoni P. The impact of deep vein thrombosis on the risk of subsequent cardiovascular events: a 14-year follow-up study. Int Angiol. 2017;36(2):156-159. doi:10.23736/S0392-9590.16.03664-6

  3. Bellet RN, Lamb RL, Gould TD, Bartlett HJ. Prevalence of neuro-musculoskeletal pain and dysfunction in open-heart surgical patients preoperatively and at 6 and 12 weeks postoperatively: a prospective longitudinal observation study. Pragmat Obs Res. 2017;8:211-222. doi:10.2147/POR.S131060

  4. Penn Medicine. Breathing After Surgery.

  5. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. OrthoInfo. Deep vein thrombosis.

  6. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. After Your Thoracic Surgery.

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

By Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN
Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FNP-C, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. She has experience in primary care and hospital medicine.