- Chest pain is discomfort or pain that you feel anywhere along the front of your body between your neck and upper abdomen.
Having a pain in your chest can be scary. It does not always mean that you are having a heart attack. There can be many other causes, including
- Heart problems, such as angina
- Panic attacks
- Digestive problems, such as heartburn or esophagus disorders
- Sore muscles
- Lung diseases, such as pneumonia, pleurisy, or pulmonary embolism
- Costochondritis - an inflammation of joints in your chest
Some of these problems can also be serious. Get immediate medical care if you have chest pain that does not go away, crushing pain or pressure in the chest, or chest pain along with nausea, sweating, dizziness or shortness of breath. Treatment depends on the cause of the pain.
Many people with chest pain fear a heart attack. However, there are many possible causes of chest pain. Some causes are not dangerous to your health, while other causes are serious and even life-threatening.
Any organ or tissue in your chest can be the source of pain, including your heart, lungs, esophagus, muscles, ribs, tendons, or nerves. Pain may also spread to the chest from the neck, abdomen, and back.
Heart problems that can cause chest pain:
- Angina or a heart attack is pain that occurs because your heart is not getting enough blood and oxygen. The most common symptom is chest pain that may feel like tightness, heavy pressure, squeezing, or crushing pain. The pain may spread to the arm, shoulder, jaw, or back.
- A tear in the wall of the aorta, the large blood vessel that takes blood from the heart to the rest of the body (aortic dissection) causes sudden, severe pain in the chest and upper back.
- Swelling (inflammation) in the sac that surrounds the heart (pericarditis) causes pain in the center part of the chest.
Lung problems that can cause chest pain:
- A blood clot in the lung (pulmonary embolism)
- Collapse of the lung (pneumothorax)
- Inflammation of the lining around the lung (pleurisy) can cause chest pain that usually feels sharp, and often gets worse when you take a deep breath or cough.
- Pneumonia causes a sharp chest pain that often gets worse when you take a deep breath or cough.
Other causes of chest pain:
- Panic attack, which often occurs with fast breathing
- Inflammation where the ribs join the breast bone or sternum (costochondritis)
- Shingles, which causes sharp, tingling pain on one side that stretches from the chest to the back, and may cause a rash
- Strain or inflammation of the muscles and tendons between the ribs
Chest pain can also be due to the following digestive system problems:
- Spasms or narrowing of the esophagus (the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach)
- Gallstones cause pain that gets worse after a meal (most often a fatty meal)
- Heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)
- Stomach ulcer or gastritis (burning pain occurs if your stomach is empty and feels better when you eat food)
In children, most chest pain is not caused by the heart.
For many causes of chest pain, it is best to check with your doctor or nurse before treating yourself at home.
If injury, overuse, or coughing has caused muscle strain, your chest wall is often tender or painful when you press a finger on the site of the pain. This can often be treated at home. Try acetaminophen or ibuprofen, ice, heat, and rest.
If you know you have asthma or angina, follow your doctor's instructions and take your medications regularly to avoid flare-ups.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call 911 if you have the following conditions:
- You have sudden crushing, squeezing, tightening, or pressure in your chest.
- Pain spreads (radiates) to your jaw, left arm, or between your shoulder blades.
- You have nausea, dizziness, sweating, a racing heart, or shortness of breath.
- You know you have angina and your chest discomfort is suddenly more intense, brought on by lighter activity, or lasts longer than usual.
- Your angina symptoms occur while you are at rest.
- You have sudden, sharp chest pain with shortness of breath, especially after a long trip, a stretch of bed rest (for example, following an operation), or other lack of movement, especially if one leg is swollen or more swollen than the other (this could be a blood clot).
Your risk of having a heart attack is greater if:
- You have a family history of heart disease
- You smoke, use cocaine, or are overweight
- You have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes
Call your doctor if:
- You have a fever or a cough that produces yellow-green phlegm
- You have chest pain that is severe and does not go away
- You are having problems swallowing
- Chest pain lasts longer than 3 to 5-days
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
Emergency measures will be taken, if needed. You may need to go to the hospital if your heart problem is serious, or the cause of the pain is unclear. Click-here for Health Tip-of-the-Day.
The doctor will do a physical exam and monitor your vital signs (temperature, pulse, breathing rate, blood pressure). The physical exam will focus on the chest wall, lungs, and heart. Your doctor may ask questions such as:
- Is the pain between the shoulder blades? Under the breast bone? Does the pain change location? Is it on one side only?
- How would you describe the pain? (Severe, tearing or ripping, sharp, stabbing, burning, squeezing, tight, pressure-like, crushing, aching, dull, heavy)
- Does it come on suddenly? Does the pain occur at the same time each day?
- Is the pain getting worse? How long does the pain last?
- Does the pain go from your chest into your shoulder, arm, neck, jaw, or back?
- Is the pain worse when you are breathing deeply, coughing, eating, or bending?
- Is the pain worse when you are exercising? Is it better after you rest? Does it go away completely, or is there just less pain?
- Is the pain better after you take nitroglycerin medicine? After you drink milk or take antacids? After belching?
- What other symptoms do you have?
Which tests are done depends on the cause of the pain. Often, one or more of the following tests may be done first:
- Blood tests such as troponin, to rule out a heart attack
- Echo cardiogram
- CT scan of the chest
- X-rays of the chest
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