Chest pain is a very common complaint. Pain may be sharp or dull, although some people with a chest disorder describe their sensation as discomfort, tightness, pressure, gas, indigestion, burning, or aching. Sometimes people also have pain in the back, neck, jaw, upper part of the abdomen, or arm. Other symptoms, such as nausea, cough, or difficulty breathing, may be present depending on the cause of the chest pain.
Many people are well aware that chest pain is a warning of potential life-threatening disorders and seek evaluation for minimal symptoms. Other people, including many with serious disease, minimize or ignore its warnings.
Many disorders cause chest pain or discomfort. Not all of these disorders involve the heart. Chest pain may also be caused by disorders of the digestive system, lungs, muscles, nerves, or bones.
Overall, the most common causes of chest pain are
Acute coronary syndromes (heart attack or unstable angina—see Acute Coronary Syndromes (Heart Attack; Myocardial Infarction; Unstable Angina)) involve a sudden blockage of an artery in the heart (coronary artery) that cuts off the blood supply to an area of the heart muscle. If some of the heart muscle dies because it does not get enough blood, that effect is termed a heart attack (myocardial infarction). In stable angina, long-term narrowing of a coronary artery (for example by atherosclerosis) limits blood flow through that artery (see Angina). This limited blood flow causes chest pain when people exert themselves.
Some causes of chest pain are immediately life threatening but, except for heart attack or unstable angina, are less common:
Other causes range from serious, potential threats to disorders that are simply uncomfortable.
People with chest pain should be evaluated by a doctor. The following information can help people decide when evaluation is needed and help them know what to expect during the evaluation.
In people with chest pain or discomfort, certain symptoms and characteristics are cause for concern. They include
When to see a doctor:
Although not all causes of chest pain are serious, because some causes are life threatening, the following people should see a doctor right away:
These people should call emergency services (911) or be taken to an emergency department as quickly as possible. People should not try to drive themselves to the hospital.
Chest pain that lasts for seconds (less than 30 seconds) is rarely caused by a heart disorder. People with very brief chest pain need to see a doctor, but emergency services are usually not needed.
People who have had chest pain for a longer time (a week or more) should see a doctor within several days unless they develop warning signs or the pain has steadily been getting worse or coming more often, in which case they should go to the hospital right away.
What the doctor does:
Doctors first ask questions about the person's symptoms and medical history and then do a physical examination. What they find during the history and physical examination often suggests a cause of the chest pain and the tests that may need to be done. However, symptoms due to dangerous and not dangerous chest disorders overlap and vary greatly. For example, although a typical heart attack causes dull, crushing chest pain, some people with a heart attack have only mild chest discomfort or complain only of indigestion or arm or shoulder pain (referred pain—Fig. 1: What Is Referred Pain?). On the other hand, people with indigestion may simply have an upset stomach, and those with shoulder pain may have only sore muscles. Similarly, although the chest is tender when touched in people with musculoskeletal chest wall pain, the chest can also be tender in people who are having a heart attack. Thus, doctors usually do tests on people with chest pain.
|PrintOpen table in new window
For adults with sudden chest pain, tests are done to rule out dangerous causes. For most people, initial tests include
If symptoms suggest an acute coronary syndrome or if no other cause is clear (particularly in people who are at high risk), doctors usually measure levels of substances that indicate heart damage (cardiac markers) in the blood (at least two separate times over a few hours) and do repeated ECGs. If these tests do not show an acute coronary syndrome, doctors often then do a stress test (see Stress Testing) before people go home or within a few days. For a stress test, ECG or an imaging test (such as echocardiography) is done during exercise (often on a treadmill) or after a drug is given to make the heart beat fast.
If pulmonary embolism is suspected, computed tomography (CT) of the lungs or a lung scan is done. If pulmonary embolism is considered only somewhat possible, a blood test to detect clots (d-dimer test) is often done. If this test is negative, pulmonary embolism is unlikely, but if the test is positive, other tests, such as ultrasonography of the legs or CT of the chest, are often done.
In people who have had chest pain for a long time, immediate threats to life are unlikely. Most doctors initially do only a chest x-ray and then do other tests based on the person's symptoms and examination findings.
Specific identified disorders are treated. If the cause is not clearly benign, people are usually admitted to the hospital or an observation unit for heart monitoring and more extensive evaluation. Symptoms are treated with acetaminophen or opioids as needed until a diagnosis is made.
Last full review/revision November 2014 by Lyall A. J. Higginson, MD