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Chest Pain


What is chest pain? Chest pain is any discomfort between your abdomen and your neck. The pain may be only in your chest or it may move to other body areas.

What causes chest pain? Chest pain can be caused by many things. Some conditions are serious and some are not. Some causes of chest pain include the following:

  • Circulation problems: High blood pressure, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), and anemia (iron-poor blood) can all cause chest pain. An aneurysm (weak part in a blood vessel) wall causes chest pain and can be life-threatening.

  • Heart problems: Heart problems that cause chest pain may be life-threatening and require emergency medical care. Angina is chest pain that happens when the heart does not get enough oxygen. A myocardial infarct (MI) is when the heart goes too long without enough oxygen. Angina can be a warning sign for a heart attack. Heart enlargement, valve problems, rhythm problems, and heart failure can also cause chest pain.

  • Anxiety, depression, or panic attacks: Panic attacks may cause chest pain but are not life-threatening. Hyperventilation (breathing too fast) can also cause chest pain. People who have depression may have chest pain or heaviness.

  • Bone, nerve, or muscle problems: Examples include arthritis, too much exercise, or conditions that make you cough hard. Herpes zoster (shingles) can cause chest pain. Injuries from a car accident or a blow to the chest may also cause chest pain.

  • Lung problems: Infections, inflammation, blood clot in a lung, or lung diseases may cause chest pain. Smoke or fumes can also cause chest pain.

  • Digestive tract problems: Acid reflux, ulcers, or other stomach and throat problems can cause chest pain. Digestion, gallbladder, or pancreas problems can also cause chest pain.

  • Other problems: Illegal drugs can cause chest pain. You may have chest pain if you do not use certain medicines correctly. Diseases such as lupus and tumors in your chest or abdomen may cause chest pain.

What do I need to know about heart attack symptoms? Learn the symptoms of a heart attack. Do not put off getting medical help if you have symptoms. The delay in treatment can be dangerous, even life-threatening. Some people who are having a heart attack may have no obvious symptoms at all. This is called a silent heart attack. The following signs may mean you are having a heart attack:

  • Chest pain, tightness, or pressure

  • Pain that spreads to your neck, jaw, shoulders, back, or arm

  • Heartburn

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Sweaty, pale, cool, or clammy skin

  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or weakness

  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
Areas of possible chest pain during a heart attack

How is chest pain treated? Caregivers will do tests to learn what is causing your chest pain. An electrocardiogram may be used to check your heart. Blood tests and a chest x-ray may also be done. You may need tests to check your esophagus, stomach, or other organs. You may be given medicine to decrease your chest pain. Other tests and treatments depend on what may be causing your pain.

How can I help my caregiver find the cause of my chest pain? Keep a record of your chest pain. Bring this with you every time you see your caregiver. Some things to keep track of include:

  • What does the pain feel like? Is it dull or sharp? Does the pain stab, squeeze, crush, or feel heavy? Is it mild, moderate, or severe?

  • Where is the pain? Is it only in one place, or does it move to other areas, such as your arm?

  • How often do you have chest pain?

  • How long does the pain last?

  • What were you doing when the pain started? Did it start during exercise, after a heavy meal, or when you were upset? Did it wake you from sleep?

  • Does anything make the pain worse? Does coughing, bending over, or taking a deep breath make it worse?

  • What helps the pain go away? Did it go away when you rested? Did taking nitroglycerin, an antacid, or an over-the-counter pain medicine help?

When should I contact my caregiver? Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have a fever.

  • Your pain happens more often or gets worse.

  • You have new or increased swelling in your feet or ankles.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care? Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • Call 911 or an ambulance if you have any signs of a heart attack:

    • Discomfort in the center of your chest that feels like squeezing, pressure, fullness, or pain, that lasts for more than a few minutes or keeps returning

    • Discomfort or pain in your back, neck, jaw, stomach, or one or both of your arms

    • Feeling sick to your stomach

    • Having trouble breathing

    • A sudden cold sweat, particularly in combination with chest discomfort or trouble breathing

    • Feeling very lightheaded or dizzy, particularly in combination with chest discomfort or trouble breathing

  • You lose feeling or movement in your face, arms, or legs.

  • You suddenly feel confused and have trouble with your vision or speech.

  • You cough or vomit blood.


You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment.

© 2013 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of the Blausen Databases or Truven Health Analytics.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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