Bone Pain – Does Lung Cancer Make Your Bones Hurt?

Although bone pain is not often thought of as a symptom of lung cancer, it can be a sign of the disease and yes, make your bones hurt. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, bone pain is a common symptom of non-small cell and small cell lung cancer. The pain is often described as a dull ache that is worsened by movement.

Bone pain occurs in a lung cancer patient if the disease spreads to the bones from a primary tumor, known as bone metastases. The spread occurs when cancer cells escape either through the bloodstream or the lymphatic system. Lung cancer that has metastasized to the bone is not considered bone cancer, because it did not originate in the bones.

About 30-40% of people living with advanced lung cancer experience bone metastasis. The likeliness that bone metastases symptoms occur increases with age. Lung cancer patients experiencing bone metastases often feel bone pain before noticing other symptoms.

How Can You Tell if Lung Cancer Has Spread to the Bones?

Most people associate lung cancer symptoms with coughing and shortness of breath. But in fact, when lung cancer spreads to other areas of the body, other symptoms occur. One of these is bone pain. Lung cancer spreads to the bones more often than anywhere else besides the liver and adrenal glands.

Cancer that spreads to the bones most often occurs in the spine, followed by the ribs, ilium (part of the pelvis), sacrum (base of the lumbar vertebrae and that is connected to the pelvis), femur, humerus, scapula, and sternum. Lung cancer spreads to the bones pretty often, compared to patients with other lung-related diseases like mesothelioma.

If you or your doctor suspect bone metastases from lung cancer, imaging tests will confirm it and help locate the affected bones. Lung cancer patients undergo X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, or PET scans to look for bone lesions or abnormally active cells.

Symptoms of Bone Metastases From Lung Cancer

Bone pain is the most common symptom of metastatic lung cancer. The pain can feel constant and worsen with movement. Patients often describe bone metastasis as deep, aching pains. Bone pain can also be accompanied by other symptoms like fatigue, weight loss, and depression.

Other lung cancer bone metastases symptoms include:

Lung cancer in the bones can lead to complications ranging from severe to life-threatening. Bone fractures sometimes occur, compromising the integrity of the affected areas. Even everyday tasks may cause a fracture, accompanied by worsening pain and complications.

Types of Bone Metastases

The types of bone metastasis are classified as osteolytic, osteoblastic, or mixed. Osteolytic metastases occur more often than osteoblastic metastases. Certain patients with metastatic breast cancer experience both types. Bones go through a cycle of forming and breaking down to keep them healthy and strong. Cancer that spreads to the bones disturbs the process.

Osteolytic Bone Metastases

The osteolytic classification is characterized by the destruction of normal bone from cancers such as non-small cell lung cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and a majority of other cancers. Bone destruction does not typically occur as a direct effect of tumor cells, but in the cells that initiate normal bone metabolism. Patients experiencing osteolytic bone metastasis risk developing holes in the bones, making them very weak.

Osteoblastic Bone Metastases

Osteoblastic (or sclerotic) occurs in patients with prostate cancer, small cell lung cancer, Hodgkin lymphoma, and small cell carcinoma. Osteoblastic bone metastases are characterized as the invasion of cancer cells into the bone, causing too many bone cells to form. Over time, osteoblastic metastases result in very dense bones.

This type of bone metastasis does not affect treatment, but doctors often use it to predict the progression of the disease and likely outcome. Patients receive a bone metastasis classification based on imaging scans via X-ray, CT, PET, or MRI.

Lung Cancer Bone Pain Treatment Options

As with any kind of metastasis, treatment for bone pain depends on how advanced it is and where in your body it’s located. Doctors often treat lung cancer in the bone with palliative methods meant to relieve symptoms rather than eliminate cancer cells.  There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for lung cancer that has spread to the bones. The good news is that there are a variety of options available, and the best approach will likely be determined by your individual situation.

If you experience serious lung cancer metastasis to bone, your priority might be to prevent fractures and other serious complications. Treatment for stage 4 lung cancer in the bones often involves chemotherapy to shrink tumors and slow the progression of the disease. Other common treatment methods to reduce pain include painkillers, steroids, and radiation therapy.

Patients undergo surgical procedures to stabilize bones that fracture as a result of metastasis and to prevent future fractures in bones weakened by cancer. Patients wondering what the latest treatment for bone metastases is should talk to their doctor about targeted therapies, a newer form of treatment that targets cancer cells.

Can Bone Metastases be Cured?

Lung cancer that has spread to the bone is not curable, although life expectancy is different for each patient. The life expectancy can depend on whether cancer has spread to other organs, such as the brain or liver. Due to lung cancer tumors spreading from the original site to the bones, bone metastasis occurs in stage 4 cancer cases.

Patients with lung cancer that spread to the bones typically have a lower life expectancy than those with stage 3 lung cancer. Although treatment options continue to grow, the average life expectancy for lung cancer in the bone is about 10 months. Survival times vary on gender, age, disease progression, and bone strength.

Related: Is Stage 3 Lung Cancer Curable?

What to Do if You’re Experiencing Bone Pain

If you’re experiencing bone pain, it’s important to see a doctor right away. While it’s not always indicative of cancer, it could be a sign of something serious. The risk factors for bone metastases in lung cancer patients are still unclear. The best prevention of bone metastases is early diagnosis and early clinical intervention.

If your lung cancer has spread to your bones, you are not alone. Nearly 25% of all lung cancer patients experience bone metastases. Patients and their loved ones can access lung cancer support groups and join a community that can relate. Find your community and learn more about your options here: Lung Cancer Support Group.