Atelectasis is a lung disorder that is characterized by a reduction or absence of air in part of or all of a lung. The cause of the low oxygen volume in the lungs is caused by airway or alveoli collapse. This could be due to non-obstructive causes such as chest injuries and trauma or obstructive causes including mucus accumulation and tumors.

Can Atelectasis Be Painful?

Can Atelectasis be Painful?

One of the possible consequences of atelectasis is pain, in particular, pleuritic pain. Depending on the intensity of the pain, patients are unable to take deep breaths and cough properly, which help in making obstructive atelectasis better. Nevertheless, atelectasis is regarded as an asymptomatic condition, meaning symptoms may not be present.

What is Pleuritic Pain?

Pleuritic pain is a sharp pain in the chest cavity which heightens during deep breathing and coughing. It can be caused by several pulmonary conditions including pneumonia and atelectasis. Pleurisy is an inflammation of the lung lining (pleural) that can be caused by an infection among other factors such as chest trauma/injury. When you take deep breaths or cough, the pleural membranes rub against each other resulting in pleuritic pain. Presence of pleural effusions around the lungs can compress the airways thus making it difficult to breathe properly and causing pain. This is because the lungs are constrained from expanding properly during breathing which increases the risk of a collapsed lung.

What Makes Atelectasis Painful?

Pain in atelectasis can be attributed to the causes of the condition. Atelectasis can either be caused by obstruction, compression, hypoventilation, lung scarring, etc. Pain is not imminent, however, in some cases of a collapsed lung, it might be felt. Also, some risk factors which increase the risk of developing atelectasis can cause pleuritic pain, which can worsen the condition. An obstruction is when there is a blockage on the airway by either inhaled foreign substances, tumors, deformed bone or mucus to mention a few. Obstructions cause increased pressure on the lungs affecting the functionality of the lungs, airways, and the alveoli. They also compress the lungs and alveoli, making it easy for them to collapse. The obstructions can also be from outside the body such as a tight brace or body cast. The mechanism of pain is traced back to the applied pressure (compressions) on the chest cavity which can be painful.

Hypoventilation is lack of deep breaths that can result in atelectasis due to decreased volume in the lungs. It is one of the common causes of this pulmonary ailment and often happens during surgery or in post-operative patients. Anesthesia and sedatives are used during surgery and after, which can make your breathing shallow. Since your intake of oxygen is lower than normal, then your lungs will also have a low oxygen volume, which can make the lung collapse. In addition to that, shallow breathing makes it hard to cough hence difficult to remove any obstruction from your way if any. Pain is usually absent or minimal after surgery because patients are usually given pain medications.

Lung scarring is caused by lung infections such as tuberculosis or pneumonia or exposure to harmful substances or injury. When lung scarring is permanent, then it makes it hard for your alveoli to inflate well and can cause a collapsed lung. Tuberculosis and pneumonia are common lung infections, which can implicate the condition of your lungs. Pneumonia affects the air sacs in your lungs, which can affect their functionality –gaseous exchange – and result in alveoli collapse. Pneumonia can also lead to pleural effusions. On the other hand, tuberculosis generally affects the lungs and patients may experience pain in the chest, especially when coughing. Other risk factors which can result in lung scarring include; smoking cigarettes and exposure to smoke or asbestos.


Atelectasis is an asymptomatic pulmonary condition that barely has any symptoms. However, in some cases of atelectasis, patients may experience pain, dyspnea (shortness of breath) as well as hypoxemia (low oxygen levels). Pain in atelectasis is often associated with the cause of the condition and specifically due to chest injuries, obstructions and compressions, surgery, and lung scarring. The pain can be managed with pain medications, but you should be careful with the dosage. Atelectasis is not a life-threatening condition when only a few airways or alveoli have been implicated. Even so, the same cannot be said when several airways or alveoli collapse.

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Pramod Kerkar

Written, Edited or Reviewed By:


Pain Assist Inc.

Last Modified On: October 5, 2018

This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer

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