From acid reflux to pancreatitis, these causes of chest pain range from harmless to dangerous. When we consider chest pain, we typically consider heart attack.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), a heart attack occurs when the oxygen-carrying blood flow to the heart muscle is severely reduced or completely cut off, which can be fatal.
1. Untreated heart attack pain can last for hours
The most severe symptom of coronary artery disease (CAD), the most prevalent form of heart disease, is a heart attack. Angina is a type of chest pain caused by coronary artery disease.
Angina may feel like pressure or squeezing in the chest, and it typically occurs during physical exertion. The pain can also be felt in the
Angina pain may even resemble heartburn, but it is typically brief, lasting no more than 10 minutes.
If you are experiencing chest pain, you must seek medical attention immediately. Call 911 immediately, especially if it’s a symptom you’ve never experienced before, the pain is intermittent, or it worsens.
All chest pain must be evaluated by a medical professional. They can determine if it’s angina, heart attack pain, or something else.
Chest discomfort is not always indicative of a heart attack. Some causes, such as heartburn, can be mild, while others, such as pancreatitis, can be dangerous.
You may wonder how someone could confuse the symptoms of acid reflux with those of a heart attack, but there is a reason why it’s called heartburn.
Gastroesophageal reflux occurs when a person’s stomach contents, including the gastric acids that aid in food digestion, back up into the esophagus.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), stomach acid has a pH of about 1, which places it between battery acid and vinegar. This explains why you feel a burning sensation just behind your breastbone.
Our stomachs are lined with membranes that protect them from the acid’s corrosive effects, whereas our esophagus is not.
If you experience reflux more than twice a week, you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease. However, occasional reflux is fairly common and probably nothing to worry about (GERD).
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, GERD can cause asthma, chest congestion, and Barrett’s esophagus, which may increase your risk of developing a rare form of cancer if left untreated over time (NIDDK).
3. Muscular Stress
It is possible for someone to mistake a strained chest muscle for something more serious, such as a heart attack, according to Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Christine Jellis, MD, Ph.D.
Dr. Jellis stated, “I had a patient who presented with chest pain and was concerned he was having a heart attack.” “After studying his past, I discovered he had moved and hadn’t lifted heavy furniture in years. However, he did the right thing by entering.”
According to Dr. Jellis, healthcare providers do not expect patients to be able to differentiate between a heart attack and a pulled chest muscle. However, if pressing on the chest wall makes the pain worse, it is more likely to be a musculoskeletal injury than a heart problem.
According to MedlinePlus, costochondritis is an inflammation of the tissue (cartilage) connecting your ribs to your breastbone.
It is a common and non-threatening (or benign) cause of chest wall pain. However, if it is new to you, it is advisable to have it examined by a medical professional.
Although physicians cannot always pinpoint the cause of the condition, viral infections, and chest injuries are among the possible triggers.
Typically, people feel a type of pressure on their chest wall and—similar to a strained muscle—a tenderness when they press on the area.
In this instance, a healthcare provider will likely begin with a review of your medical history and a physical examination. “A physician will want to rule out cardiac and other serious conditions first,” Dr. Jellis explained. It will probably be diagnosed by exclusion.
If you have costochondritis, the pain should subside within a few days or weeks; over-the-counter pain relievers can help.
The virus that causes chickenpox remains in the body long after the rash has disappeared. In fact, the varicella-zoster virus can reactivate in adulthood (typically in those over the age of 50) as shingles.
The initial signs are itching and burning skin. If the area over the chest is affected, this new pain could be mistaken for a heart attack or other cardiac issue, according to Salman Arain, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute-Texas Medical Center in Houston.
A few days later, however, the telltale rash and blisters may appear.
If you suspect you have zoster, contact a healthcare provider immediately. Antiviral medications can alleviate pain and shorten the duration of symptoms if taken within 72 hours of the rash’s appearance.
If it is too late to take antivirals, a medical professional may prescribe a painkiller.
Pericarditis is a condition in which the layers of tissue surrounding the heart become inflamed (called the pericardium).
In 80%–85% of cases, pericarditis is caused by a viral infection, according to a Current Cardiology Reports article from 2022.
According to MedlinePlus, other causes include bacterial infections, which are less common, and fungal infections, which are uncommon. Although there may be additional causes.
In the majority of cases, pain is described as being sharp or stabbing. However, it can also occur in the neck, shoulder, back, and abdomen.
Unique to this condition, it worsens when lying down, breathing deeply, coughing, or swallowing, and improves when sitting up and leaning forward.
According to Dr. Arain, even though pericarditis is typically harmless, it can have a significant impact on your quality of life.
After ordering a CT scan, EKG, or chest X-ray, a healthcare provider may diagnose your condition.
Chances are, however, that your pericarditis will clear up in a few days or weeks if you rest and take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen.
Even if a person’s chest pain is not associated with a heart attack, it is still dangerous. According to the NIDDK, acute pancreatitis is the sudden inflammation of the pancreas, which is situated just behind the stomach.
According to Dr. Arain, intense abdominal pain can radiate to the chest. And the pain associated with pancreatitis is typically a deep, intense pain.
Gallstones (hard, pebble-like pieces of material typically composed of hardened cholesterol, per the NIDDK) frequently cause pancreatitis by triggering inflammation in the pancreas; this is more common in women than in men.
If you suspect you have pancreatitis, seek immediate medical attention; you will likely need to stay in the hospital for several days to receive antibiotics, intravenous fluids, and pain medication.
In addition to blood work, a physician will likely order additional tests, such as a CT scan or abdominal ultrasound.
8. Pleuritic chest pain
There are numerous pulmonary (lung) causes of chest pain. As both the lungs and heart are located in the chest, it can be difficult to determine the source of the pain.
When the lining of the lungs (the pleura) becomes inflamed, chest pain associated with pleurisy can develop. According to a 2017 article published in the American Family Physician, this can result in “sudden and intensely sharp, stabbing, or burning chest pain when inhaling and exhaling.”
Although not related to a heart attack, this type of chest pain can also be serious and is another reason to seek medical attention for your symptoms.
The most frequent life-threatening cause of pleuritic chest pain is pulmonary embolism.
A pulmonary embolism occurs when a lung artery is obstructed. According to MedlinePlus, this obstruction can damage the lungs and cause low oxygen levels in the blood, which can damage other organs.
Pneumonia can also cause pleuritic chest pain. According to MedlinePlus, pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that can range from mild to severe, depending on the underlying cause. If you have pneumonia, chest pain will occur when you breathe or cough.
If you’ve suffered a chest injury or trauma, a broken or bruised rib can also lead to chest pain. If you have a rib injury, breathing, coughing, and moving your upper body can be extremely painful.
People frequently mistake a panic attack for a heart attack and believe they are dying when experiencing one.
In addition to chest pain, symptoms may include a pounding heart, sweating, trembling, nausea, dizziness, and the sensation of going insane. According to the American Psychological Association, this is your body’s fight-or-flight response taking effect.
Typically, panic attacks occur without warning. People may encounter them for various reasons, including:
- Having a history of panic attacks in the family
- An occurrence of childhood trauma
- Managing major life changes and persistent stress (such as a serious illness of a loved one)
- Being exposed to a traumatic event (such as a robbery or car accident)
If you believe you have experienced a panic attack, it may be beneficial to see a doctor. They can rule out any physical problems with your heart, thereby calming you down.
A healthcare provider may also refer you to a mental health professional who can assist with the treatment and management of your symptoms.
- Are there any personal experiences related to non-cardiac chest pain that you’d like to share?
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