Chest pain appears in many forms, ranging from a sharp stab to a dull ache. Sometimes chest pain feels crushing or burning. In certain cases, the pain travels up the neck, into the jaw, and then radiates to the back or down one or both arms.
Many different problems can cause chest pain. The most life-threatening causes involve the heart or lungs. Because chest pain can indicate a serious problem, it's important to seek immediate medical help.
Chest pain can cause many different sensations depending on what's triggering the symptom. Often, the cause has nothing to do with your heart — though there's no easy way to tell without seeing a doctor.
Heart-related chest pain
Although chest pain is often associated with heart disease, many people with heart disease say they experience a vague discomfort that isn't necessarily identified as pain. In general, chest discomfort related to a heart attack or another heart problem may be described by or associated with one or more of the following:
- Pressure, fullness, burning or tightness in your chest
- Crushing or searing pain that radiates to your back, neck, jaw, shoulders, and one or both arms
- Pain that lasts more than a few minutes, gets worse with activity, goes away and comes back, or varies in intensity
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweats
- Dizziness or weakness
- Nausea or vomiting
Other types of chest pain
It can be difficult to distinguish heart-related chest pain from other types of chest pain. However, chest pain that is less likely due to a heart problem is more often associated with:
- A sour taste or a sensation of food re-entering your mouth
- Trouble swallowing
- Pain that gets better or worse when you change your body position
- Pain that intensifies when you breathe deeply or cough
- Tenderness when you push on your chest
- Pain that is persistently present for many hours
The classic symptoms of heartburn — a painful, burning sensation behind your breastbone — can be caused by problems with your heart or your stomach.
When to see a doctor
If you have new or unexplained chest pain or suspect you're having a heart attack, call for emergency medical help immediately.
Chest pain has many possible causes, all of which need medical attention.
Examples of heart-related causes of chest pain include:
- Heart attack. A heart attack results from blocked blood flow, often from a blood clot, to your heart muscle.
- Angina. Angina is the term for chest pain caused by poor blood flow to the heart. This is often caused by the buildup of thick plaques on the inner walls of the arteries that carry blood to your heart. These plaques narrow the arteries and restrict the heart's blood supply, particularly during exertion.
- Aortic dissection. This life-threatening condition involves the main artery leading from your heart (aorta). If the inner layers of this blood vessel separate, blood is forced between the layers and can cause the aorta to rupture.
- Pericarditis. This is the inflammation of the sac surrounding your heart. It usually causes sharp pain that gets worse when you breathe in or when you lie down.
Chest pain can be caused by disorders of the digestive system, including:
- Heartburn. This painful, burning sensation behind your breastbone occurs when stomach acid washes up from your stomach into the tube that connects your throat to your stomach (esophagus).
- Swallowing disorders. Disorders of the esophagus can make swallowing difficult and even painful.
- Gallbladder or pancreas problems. Gallstones or inflammation of your gallbladder or pancreas can cause abdominal pain that radiates to your chest.
Muscle and bone causes
Some types of chest pain are associated with injuries and other problems affecting the structures that make up the chest wall, including:
- Costochondritis. In this condition, the cartilage of your rib cage, particularly the cartilage that joins your ribs to your breastbone, becomes inflamed and painful.
- Sore muscles. Chronic pain syndromes, such as fibromyalgia, can produce persistent muscle-related chest pain.
- Injured ribs. A bruised or broken rib can cause chest pain.
Many lung disorders can cause chest pain, including:
- Pulmonary embolism. This occurs when a blood clot becomes lodged in a lung (pulmonary) artery, blocking blood flow to lung tissue.
- Pleurisy. If the membrane that covers your lungs becomes inflamed, it can cause chest pain that worsens when you inhale or cough.
- Collapsed lung. The chest pain associated with a collapsed lung typically begins suddenly and can last for hours, and is generally associated with shortness of breath. A collapsed lung occurs when air leaks into the space between the lung and the ribs.
- Pulmonary hypertension. This condition occurs when you have high blood pressure in the arteries carrying blood to the lungs, which can produce chest pain.
Chest pain can also be caused by:
- Panic attack. If you have periods of intense fear accompanied by chest pain, a rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, profuse sweating, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness and a fear of dying, you may be experiencing a panic attack.
- Shingles. Caused by a reactivation of the chickenpox virus, shingles can produce pain and a band of blisters from your back around to your chest wall.