A woman touches her upper back

Don't Ignore Me! Signed, Pneumonia

Last updated: July 2022

Generally – at least I think this is true – breathing in and out is NOT supposed to hurt. In fact, with a healthy set of lungs breathing in and out is a pretty mindless experience. The air flows smoothly through the maze of large and small airways, slowly and steadily, and the red blood cells carry the oxygen gathered to the various parts of the body. It’s an automatic process that the human body is able to repeat over 22,000 times a day with absolutely no thought. And usually, absolutely no pain.

So what happens when breathing becomes painful? Chances are something isn’t right. I am not saying you’re experiencing a medical emergency, but it’s probably best to call a doctor if you are in pain while breathing. I think most people would seek medical help, right?

Gee, I need to try to be more like most people next time.

Ignorance isn’t bliss

One morning a few weeks ago, I woke up with a heaviness in my back, right around my upper shoulders that felt as if someone placed a hefty backpack there without me knowing. The dull weight made it a bit harder to breathe in but I wasn’t noticeably short of breath. I chalked it up to just another unimportant ebb and flow of living with decade old CF lungs. Typically, things felt a little off here and there. No big deal.

Over the course of the next couple days, a few more things went wonky. I started having chills, body aches, and a pain in my shoulder when I breathed in. I assumed I pulled a muscle in my shoulder lifting my infant son. The chills and aches came and went but they weren’t bad enough to really dwell upon. I decided I would wait and see if it went away on its own. However, the pain in my shoulder intensified to the point I couldn’t lay on my back, effectively cough, or sleep on my side. I tried a heating pad and Tylenol each night but eventually decided it was finally time to call my doctor in the morning.

Pneumonia comes knockin’

"I think it’s best you head into the ER so they can get an x-ray and figure out what's going on. My fear is it could be a pneumothorax or blood clot,” said my CF doctor the next morning when I called her. “Please, no. Can I just go to the lab and get an x-ray? I’m not short of breath really--just in pain,” I tried to negotiate without fail.

I am thankful that my doctor knows me pretty well and is willing to meet me in the middle most times. The ER was the last place I wanted to be with two little kids at home and some fresh trauma from my mom’s recent cancer diagnosis. I really just wanted to avoid the ER. She finally agreed to a stat X-ray at our local lab and to call me with the results ASAP.

“The good news is your lungs are fully inflated. The bad news is the radiologist noted a substantial pocket of lingular pneumonia according to the X-ray. I think we should start IVs right away to clear up the infection,” reported my doctor as I sat in my car outside the lab waiting for the sign I was going to head home instead of the ER.

Dang.

A lesson learned

Begrudgingly, I started IVs that night to treat the pneumonia infection. I also was reminded of a lesson it seems I need to be reminded of from time to time: Don’t ignore me. Even if it's a small or manageable symptom, it's best to be overly cautious.

Especially when it comes to my precious lungs that have been through so much, I need to give them some respect and consider unremarkable changes to be important. In the end, pain when you breathe is NOT normal and next time I will be like most people.

Have you ever ignored a health symptom? What happened? Share your story below!

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Cystic-Fibrosis.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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