At the first sign of chest pain, you might think it’s a heart attack. But it could be something else. Could you tell the difference? Test yourself!
When chest pain is serious enough for someone to see a doctor, most of the time he/she is already having a heart attack.
Most chest pain, even when it's bad enough to send you to the doctor, has nothing to do with the heart. Of about 5.5 million people who seek medical attention for chest pain each year in the US, more than 80%—by some estimates, 90%— don’t have any form of heart disease.
If the cause of your chest pain isn't a heart attack, it's almost certainly heartburn.
While heartburn is a common cause, there are dozens of other problems that can cause chest pain! Gastrointestinal-based causes include peptic ulcers, pancreatitis, gallbladder disorders, hiatal hernia or muscle spasms in the esophagus. Muscle strain from overexertion can trigger chest pain. So can lung infection (such as pneumonia) or inflammation (such as from an asthma attack), a collapsed lung, stress or anxiety. Another common cause is costochondritis—inflammation in the cartilage where your ribs attach to your breastbone.
Chest pain from a heart attack often feels different from chest pain due to other causes.
Chest pain that signals a heart attack is usually a severe, crushing pain, often in the center or left side of the chest. A quick sharp pain is most likely due to an injury to any of the muscles, bones, tendons or cartilage of the chest wall...a broken rib...even coughing too hard. Pain in a specific, limited area of the chest that changes as you breathe may be a lung-related condition such as asthma or pneumonia. Unexplained chest pain? Call your doctor—ask if you should come in to be checked…go to the ER.
If your chest pain subsides when you move around, it might be...
If your pain improves as you move, it could be a heartburn (acid reflux). Heart-related chest pain won't get better if you move around—and if it's caused by angina, the pain may get worse.
Chest pain is as likely to signal a heart problem in a woman as in a man.
Chest pain is the most common sign of a heart attack in both men and women. It's true that women often have subtly different heart attack symptoms from men—more jaw or back pain, for example—but neither men nor women should dismiss chest pain.
Chest pain can be contagious.
Contagious bacteria, viruses and even fungi can cause conditions that make your chest hurt. Example: Shingles—a reactivation of the virus that causes chickenpox—can cause sharp chest pain. Also, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease can, if it gets into heart tissue, cause chest pain known as Lyme carditis. Viruses, bacteria and fungi can cause pneumonia, a common cause of chest pain.
There’s no way to tell whether chest pain is from angina or a heart attack.
Pain from stable angina—too little blood flowing to the heart—usually comes on slowly, sometimes after exertion, and gradually increases. The pain often subsides in five to 10 minutes, when you rest, and when you take nitroglycerin (if your doctor has prescribed it for you). But neither medication nor rest will relieve chest pain that's caused by a heart attack, which unlike angina often comes on suddenly.
Chest pain accompanied by jaw and shoulder pain doesn’t require a call to 911.
Chest pain that feels like pressure, squeezing, tightness or a crushing sensation that comes on suddenly—especially if it extends to your arms, shoulders, back, jaw or upper abdomen—requires immediate medical attention. When it's accompanied by nausea, vomiting, dizziness and breaking out in a cold sweat, it's even more likely to be symptomatic of a heart attack. Remember that heart muscle dies during a heart attack, so it’s important to get to a hospital quickly.