Pancoast tumors, also called superior sulcus tumors, are a rare type of cancer affecting the lung apex. These tumors can spread to the brachial plexus and spine and present with symptoms that appear to be of musculoskeletal origin. Patients with an advanced Pancoast tumor may thus feel intense, constant, or radiating pain in their arms, around their chest wall, between their shoulder blades, or traveling into their upper back or armpit. In addition, a Pancoast tumor may cause the following symptoms:
- Swelling in the upper arm
- Chest tightness
- Weakness or loss of coordination in the hand muscles
- Numbness or tingling sensations in the hand
- Loss of muscle tissue in the arm or hand
- Unexplained weight loss
This case report details the story of a 59-year-old Asian man who presented to a chiropractor in Hong Kong with a 1-month history of neck and shoulder pain and numbness. His symptoms had been treated unsuccessfully with exercise, medications, and acupuncture. He had a history of tuberculosis currently treated with antibiotics and a 50-pack-year history of smoking.
Cervical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed a small cervical disc herniation thought to correspond with radicular symptoms. However, when the patient did not respond to a brief trial of chiropractic treatment, the chiropractor referred the patient back to the chest hospital for further testing, which confirmed the diagnosis of a Pancoast tumor. The patient was then referred for medical care and received radiotherapy and chemotherapy. At 2 months’ follow-up, the patient noted feeling lighter with less severe neck and shoulder pain and numbness. He also reported that he could sleep longer but still had severe pain upon waking for 2–3 hours, which subsided through the day.
A literature review identified six previously published cases in which a patient presented to a chiropractor with an undiagnosed Pancoast tumor. All patients had shoulder, spine, and/or upper extremity pain.
The authors concluded that patients with a previously undiagnosed Pancoast tumor can present to chiropractors given that these tumors may invade the brachial plexus and spine, causing shoulder, spine, and/or upper extremity pain. Chiropractors should be aware of the clinical features and risk factors of Pancoast tumors to readily identify them and refer such patients for medical care.
This is an important case report, in my view. It demonstrates that symptoms treated by chiropractors, osteopaths, and physiotherapists on a daily basis can easily be diagnosed wrongly. It also shows how vital it is that the therapist reacts responsibly to the fact that his/her treatments are unsuccessful. Far too often, the therapist has an undeniable conflict of interest and will say: “Give it more time, and, in my experience, symptoms will respond.”
The chiropractor in this story was brilliant and did the unusual thing of not continuing to treat his patient. However, I do wonder: might he be the exception rather than the rule?