Sept. 3, 2004 -- Chest pain can be a sign of serious illness. How much do you know about chest pain?
What is chest pain?
Known in medical terms as angina, chest pain is the most common symptom of heart disease. It occurs when blood flow in the arteries on the heart muscle is temporarily blocked and the heart is deprived of the oxygen and nutrients it needs to do its job properly.
What does it feel like?
Angina can be described as a discomfort, heaviness, pressure, aching, burning, fullness, squeezing, or painful feeling. Chest pain related to angina is often mistaken for indigestion or heartburn, but doctors can perform tests to rule this out quickly.
Angina is usually felt in the chest, but it may also be felt in the left shoulder, arms, neck, throat, jaw, or back.
What should I do if I feel chest pain?
If your chest pain worsens and lasts more than five minutes, especially if you're short of breath, feel weak, nauseated, or lightheaded, call 9-1-1 and seek immediate medical assistance; this may be a sign of a heart attack.
Does chest pain differ among men and women?
Is chest pain the only warning sign of a heart attack or other serious heart problems?
No. Chest pain is a common symptom of heart attack, but some people may experience a heart attack without feeling any pain in the chest.
Other signs of a heart attack may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Palpitations (irregular heartbeats, skipped beats, or a "flip-flop" feeling in the chest)
- A faster heartbeat
- Weakness or dizziness
Are there different types of angina?
Yes, there are two types of angina, stable and unstable.
With stable angina, you may notice the problem only when your heart is working harder and needs more oxygen, such as during exercise. The pain or discomfort goes away when you rest because your heart no longer needs as much oxygen.
With unstable angina, chest pain can occur even without exertion. Here a clot partly or completely blocks your heart arteries for a short period of time. However, the clot either breaks up by itself or breaks up after treatment with medications, so permanent damage to the heart does not occur. If the clot persists, a heart attack will result. With a heart attack the blockage lasts long enough to permanently damage part of your heart muscle. The longer your heart muscle goes without oxygen, the larger the heart attack. Your doctor will consider three important factors in deciding whether you are having a heart attack:
- Your description of your symptoms
- Your EKG results
- Your blood tests (cardiac enzymes show heart muscle damage)
What other conditions may cause chest pain?
Although chest pain is the most common symptom of a heart attack and heart disease, discomfort in the chest may also be caused my many other conditions, such as:
Digestive system problems:
- Stomach acid moving upward into the esophagus (esophageal reflux or heartburn)
- Muscle spasm of the esophagus
- Gallbladder disease
- A sore in the lining of the stomach or small intestine (peptic ulcer)
- Inflammation of the membrane surrounding the lungs (pleurisy)
- Inflammation of the membrane covering the heart (pericarditis)
Heart, lung, and heart valve problems:
- A tear in the wall of the aorta (aortic dissection)
- Narrowing of the aortic valve (aortic stenosis)
- A blood clot in one of the arteries of the lungs (pulmonary embolism)
- Panic, anxiety, stress, or depression
- Shingles (herpes zoster), a reactivation of the chickenpox virus that causes pain and rash
- Pain in the bones and/or muscles of the chest wall