Pain And Asthma: What Do Studies Show?
Asthma is not necessarily a painful syndrome, although it has been known to cause various sorts of pain, such as chest tightness and headaches. Pain, regardless where it presents, is a symptom indicating something is wrong. That said, there have been a few studies linking asthma with pain. Here is what they show.
Asthma attacks, even mild ones, can cause chest pain or discomfort
It appears that chest pain is a very common occurrence among those suffering from asthma attacks. A 2000 study revealed that 76% of asthmatics presenting to the emergency room with asthma attacks described feelings of “a dull ache or sharp, stabbing pain” in the chest.1
Worn out accessory muscles may contribute to chest soreness
The same study referenced above noted that chest pain worsened with coughing, taking in a deep breath, or simply moving. This may be because, when your airways are narrowed during asthma attacks, the muscles normally used during inhalation will need extra help. To the rescue come accessory muscles. However, when used, they quickly tire and get sore, kind of like when you work out for the first time in a long time. This may explain the chest soreness.1
Chest pain may lead to misdiagnosis
If you enter the emergency room showing signs of shortness of breath, and also complaining of chest pain, this may cause a doctor to think that something other than asthma is causing your symptoms. Other things that may cause chest pain are:
- Pneumonia : Inflammation of the smallest airways and air exchange units.
- Pericarditis : Inflammation of the sac surrounding the lungs (pericardium).
- Pleurisy: Inflammation of the tissues surrounding the lungs.
- Pulmonary emboli: Blood clot inside an artery in your lungs.
- Cardiac ischemia: Heart not receiving enough oxygen.
These medical conditions can easily be ruled out by chest x-rays, cat scans, and lab tests, although they take time away from a proper diagnosis of asthma. This may cause a delay in getting appropriate treatment for your asthma.
Treating asthma often cures the chest pain
At the same time, this study also showed that, in most cases, when asthma was treated with rescue medicine and/ or systemic corticosteroids, the chest pain subsided within a matter of minutes. So, this means that, in most cases, a proper diagnosis of asthma, and proper treatment, resolved the symptom of chest pain.1
Asthma increases risk for heart attacks
A study published in 2014 showed that asthmatics who take asthma controller medicine every day are 60% more likely to have heart attacks or strokes than those who did not have asthma. The study also showed that asthmatics overall had a 70% greater risk of having heart attacks.
One theory explaining this is that the same chemicals that cause airway inflammation are also responsible for inflammation of blood vessels that leads to cardiac disease and clogged arteries. Also, the same study showed that asthmatics who were treated for asthma, take asthma medicines, or who experienced symptoms within the past year, were 50% more likely to have heart attacks than asthmatics who experienced no symptoms.
So, just a friendly reminder here, make sure you talk to your doctor if you experience chest pain of any sort. While this pain may be caused by your asthma, it may also be caused by cardiac events such as heart attacks.2
Asthma increases risk for headaches
There have been a few studies showing that asthmatics have an increased risk for migraine headaches. One study seemed to indicate a higher prevalence of headache, including migraine and tension headaches, among the asthma community compared to the non-asthmatic community.
One theory suspects that some of the same chemicals responsible for asthmatic inflammation may also be responsible for migraine headaches. Allergic Rhinitis (allergies) has also been implicated in headaches. The culprit here is histamine, which is known to cause vasodilation, which is known to cause headaches.
Interestingly, asthmatics taking inhaled steroids to control their asthma had a lower incidence of migraine. A theory here is that inhaled steroids, while known to help control asthma, may also help to prevent headaches.3-4
Rhinosinusitis may cause headache, but maybe not
As many as 80% of asthmatics have a diagnosis of rhinitis, or allergies (often referred to as hay fever). Rhinitis is often blamed for sinus headaches, although most evidence seems to suggest rhinitis by itself rarely causes headaches. Chronic rhinitis can lead to sinusitis (rhinosinusitis), and this is what most experts believe causes sinus headaches.
However, more recent evidence seems to suggest that even this may not prove to be true, as they now suspect that up to 90% of sinus headaches are actually migraines caused by neurological events. If this new theory holds true, patients diagnosed with both rhinosinusitis and headache (migraine) may benefit from treatment for both conditions, rather than just treating the rhinosinusitis.5-6
What can we conclude here?
Asthma is not, generally speaking, a painful disease. However, there are a variety of situations that could lend asthma, or its secondary effects, to causing some aches and pains. Like feeling short of breath, chest pain and headaches must be taken seriously.
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