What Is Chest Pain?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chest pain is one of the most common reasons that people ages 15 and older visit the emergency room. In 2008, about nine percent of all ER visits were related to chest pain. (CDC, 2010)
Chest pain varies from person to person. It may feel like a sharp, stabbing pain or a dull ache. While chest pain may be a sign of a serious heart-related problem, it may also have other common, nonâlife-threatening causes.
What Causes Chest Pain?
When you have chest pain, your first thought may be that you are having a heart attack. While chest pain is a possible sign of a heart problem, many other, less serious conditions can also cause chest pain. Only about 13 percent of all ER visits for chest pain result in a diagnosis of a serious heart-related problem. (CDC, 2010)
Heart-Related Causes of Chest Pain
anginaâchest pain due to blockages in the blood vessels leading to your heart
pericarditisâinflammation of the sac around the heart
myocarditisâinflammation of the heart muscle
cardiomyopathyâheart muscle disease
aortic dissectionâa rare condition involving rupture of the heartâs main artery
Gastrointestinal Causes of Chest Pain
acid reflux (heartburn)
swallowing problems related to disorders of the esophagus
gallstones or inflammation of the gallbladder or pancreas
Lung-Related Causes of Chest Pain
pneumothoraxâa leak of air from your lung into your chest
Muscle/Bone Causes of Chest Pain
bruised or broken ribs
sore muscles from exertion or chronic pain syndromes
compression fracture, causing pressure on a nerve
Other Causes of Chest Pain
shinglesâan infection of the nerves and skin caused by the chicken pox virus
panic attack â a sudden episode of intense fear when there is no real danger or cause
What Other Symptoms May Accompany Chest Pain?
Chest pain may be accompanied by other symptoms that will help with diagnosis.
While pain is the most common symptom of a heart problem, some people experience other symptoms, with or without accompanying chest pain. Women in particular have reported atypical symptoms that have later been diagnosed as a heart condition.
pressure or tightness in the chest
back, jaw, or arm pain
feeling light-headed, dizzy, or short of breath
abdominal pain or nausea
pain after exertion
Symptoms that may indicate your chest pain is not heart-related include:
sour or acidic taste in your mouth
pain only after you swallow or eat, or difficulty swallowing
pain that is better or worse depending on your body position
pain that is worse when you breathe deeply or cough
tenderness when you push on your chest
pain accompanied by a rash
fever, aches, chills, runny nose, or cough
feelings of panic or anxiety
back pain that radiates to the front of the chest
How Is Chest Pain Diagnosed?
If you think you may be having a heart attack, itâs important that you seek emergency treatment immediately, especially if chest pain is new, unexplained, or lasts more than a few moments.
Your doctor will ask a number of questions to help diagnose the cause of your chest pain. Be prepared to discuss any related symptoms and to share information about any medications, treatments, or other medical conditions you may have.
Your doctor may order tests to help diagnose or eliminate heart-related problems as a cause of your chest pain. These may include:
electrocardiogram, which records your heartâs electrical activity
blood tests, to measure enzyme levels
chest X-ray, to examine heart, lungs, and blood vessels
echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to record moving images of the heart
computed tomography (CT) scan, to look for blockages in blood vessels
magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which looks for damage to the heart or aorta
stress tests, to measure your heart function after exertion
angiogram, to look for blockages in specific arteries
How Is Chest Pain Treated?
Chest pain might be treated with medication, noninvasive procedures, surgery, or a combination of all of the above.
medications, including nitroglycerin and other artery relaxers, clot-busting drugs, and blood thinners
cardiac catheterization, using balloons and/or stents to open blocked arteries
surgical repair of arteries
lung re-inflation, in case of a collapsed lung
antacids or certain procedures for acid reflux and heartburn
anti-anxiety medications for chest pain related to panic attacks
What Is the Outlook for Chest Pain?
Many common causes of chest pain can be easily treated and resolved. However, chest pain can also be a symptom of a life-threatening condition.
If you think you may be experiencing a heart attack or other heart problem, seeking medical treatment immediately can help save your heart muscle and your life. Once you have been diagnosed, your doctor can recommend additional treatments to help manage your condition.