Experienced chest pain is scary and should not be ignored. At best, it’s uncomfortable; at worst, it’s a worrisome warning sign. Chest pain is also quite common: Non-traumatic chest pain is the second most common cause of emergency room visits in adults, accounting for as many as 8 million visits per year, according to a 2016 study in JAMA Internal Medicine.
With so many possible causes of chest pain (which we’ll get into in a moment), how do you know what you’re dealing with? Is the heart-related pain or something else?
As someone who has struggled with chest pain for years, with a few guesses as to the culprit – anxiety, asthma, costochondritis — I know to some extent what that fear is. I reached out to cardiologists for their input on what to look for.
When Chest Pain Could Be a Heart Problem
One thing to check is: when the pain arises.
“Chest discomfort related to the heart is usually described as a chest discomfort that gets worse with exertion,” said Dr. Estelle Jean, a cardiologist from MedStar Montgomery Medical Center in Olney, Maryland. “Patients usually describe the chest discomfort as tightness, pressure, heaviness, squeezing, a band-like sensation, or heartburn.” She added that the pain is usually gradual, both at the onset and at the onset.
If the chest pain is secondary to coronary artery blockages, you may notice other signs as well. For example, the pain “may radiate to the left arm, shoulder, or jaw and may be accompanied by other symptoms such as difficulty breathing, dizziness, sweating, or nausea and vomiting,” said Dr. Adriana Quinones-Camacho, a cardiologist and the chief of medicine on NYU Langone Health’s Manhattan campus.
Both Jean and Quinones-Camacho agreed that rest is crucial — in addition to talking to a doctor, of course. “All symptoms of chest pain should be taken very seriously and fully assessed by a health care professional,” Quinones-Camacho said.
What are other causes of chest pain and what can relieve them?
Let’s start with what chest pain that is not related to the heart usually looks like. Jean said it is “usually described as a sharp pain that is worse with a deep breath or cough, pain localized to one finger, pain that gets worse with movement or palpation, and fleeting pains that last for a few seconds or less.”
Many things can cause chest pain, but here are some of the most common ones that experts see:
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)Heartburn, or acid reflux, is when stomach acid backs up into your esophagus. (Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds.) You may experience heartburn after eating, difficulty swallowing, and coughing. Jean suggested treating GERD with antacids, such as Tums or Rolaids.
Asthma is a condition in which your airways narrow and produce extra mucus. Symptoms include wheezing while exhaling, shortness of breath, and coughing. If you have asthmathen talk to your doctor about getting an inhaler if you don’t already have one (and make sure you get a new one once your current one has expired).
Like many mental illnesses, anxiety can cause physical problems, such as chest pain. In addition to worrying, people with generalized anxiety disorder may also overthink, struggle with uncertainty, and be unable to relax or concentrate. Both psychotherapy and anti-anxiety medications can help, Jean said.
“Strategies to reduce stress include meditation, yoga, sleeping at least 7 to 8 hours at night, eating a heart-healthy diet and regular exercise,” she added. Heart-Healthy Foods That Cardiologists Eat include fruits, vegetables, lean meats and whole grains.
Skipping warm-ups before exercise, contact injuries, lifting things while turning, and muscle fatigue can all be the cause muscle strain.
Pay attention to any bruising, pain when breathing, swelling, and difficulty moving. If you pass out, become dizzy, vomit, have a fever, become drowsy, or have trouble breathing, go to the emergency room immediately. Otherwise, Quinones-Camacho said the problem should resolve on its own.
Other possible causes of chest pain include chest wall problems, stomach ulcers, pulmonary embolism, and pneumonia. It is important to get your doctor’s input on your particular case. At the terribly In any case, consider calling a nurse support line. Insurance companies often offer this as part of their benefits.
Remember: Chest pain can be life-threatening, even if it doesn’t seem like it at first. Consulting a doctor as soon as possible is vital.