Chest pain can be scary. It may indicate a serious underlying health problem, such as a heart attack, angina or another heart condition, although less-serious causes, such as heartburn, can also cause chest pain. While not all chest pain indicates a serious health problem, it’s important to seek medical attention for any severe or lasting chest pain and to call for emergency medical assistance if you suspect you may be having a heart attack.
Although it’s the worst case scenario, chest pain may indicate that you’re having a heart attack. So, how do you know if you’re having one? During a heart attack, chest pain is usually described as a mild-to-severe ache, pressure, or squeezing in the center of your chest that lasts more than several minutes. The pain may spread beyond the chest to the upper body, back, arms, jaw or abdomen. Men are more likely than women to experience chest pain during a heart attack. Other common heart attack symptoms include: shortness of breath, dizziness, sweating, nausea and anxiety. While not all chest pain signifies a heart attack, it is critical that you seek emergency medical assistance if you have heart attack symptoms.
Note that heart attacks are relatively uncommon in people under 40. That said, using stimulants such as cocaine or methamphetamines, or having a family history of heart attacks at a young age can substantially raise your risk of having a heart attack when you’re in your 20s or 30s.
If your chest pain is ongoing but doesn’t fit the description of a heart attack, it is still important to see a doctor to determine the cause. You don’t need to fear the worst: oftentimes chest pain is caused by a gastrointestinal condition such as acid reflux, a.k.a. heartburn, or gas pains. If your doctor determines this to be the case, she may prescribe you antacid medications or a special diet.
Besides a heart attack or digestive problems, other potential causes of chest pain include serious circulatory problems such as atherosclerosis, angina, pericarditis, coronary spasm or myocarditis. Respiratory conditions including lung problems, muscloskeletal issues such as muscle spasms, and even panic attacks can also cause chest pain—it is actually quite common for people with panic disorders to mistakenly believe they’re having a heart attack, when they are, in fact, just having a panic attack. Gallstones and pancreatitis can sometimes cause chest pain as well.
Based on your symptoms, medical history, and diagnostic tests, your physician should be able to diagnose the underlying factor contributing to your chronic chest pain. If the nature of your chest pain isn’t clear from your symptoms and medical history, your doctor may schedule diagnostic tests such as an electrocardiogram, a stress test, a chest X-ray, blood tests, an echocardiogram, an angiogram, magnetic resonance imaging, and/or an endoscopy. These tests can help determine whether your chest pain is a result of a cardiac, respiratory or musculoskeletal condition, or another cause.
Although chest pain is a serious symptom that may signify a heart problem, there are things you can do to improve your heart health substantially and prevent future heart-related chest pain, even if you’ve been diagnosed with a cardiac or respiratory condition. Most importantly, once you’ve received the go-ahead from your doctor, it is integral for the health of your heart, and other body systems, to participate in some sort of regular exercise program. To improve your heart-health, the American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, such as walking on a treadmill, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise, such as jogging.