Chest pain: Heart attack or something else?

Chest pain: Heart attack or something else?

Chest pain occurs when your heart muscle doesn’t get enough blood that is rich in oxygen.

A report from Harvard Health acknowledges that chest pains often cause worry because most people think it is a sign of a possible heart attack.

However, it may also be a symptom of another condition or problem. How can you tell the difference?

A heart attack will cause pain, pressure/tightness, squeezing or burning; it will be constant in the middle of the chest; it will extend to the left arm, neck, jaw, or back; will appear during or after physical exertion or emotional stress or while you are at rest and you may have difficulty breathing, cold sweat or sudden nausea.

The pain according to Harvard is less likely to be a heart attack if it is only felt in one small spot; is sudden and lasts only a few seconds; is not accompanied by any other symptoms; it feels sharp or knifelike pain and is brought on by breathing or coughing.

The British National Health Service (NHS) says people at risk of chest pains:

  • smoke
  • are very overweight (obese)
  • have high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol
  • have a history of heart attacks or angina in family members under 60 years old

Other triggers of chest pains listed on CNN Health include:


This is a form of indigestion felt as a burning sensation in the chest, caused by acid regurgitation into the esophagus.

Gastroesophageal reflux occurs when a person’s stomach contents including the gastric acids that help break down food, back up into the esophagus, the tube that connects the throat and stomach.

Stomach acid is highly acidic, hence, the burning sensation behind your breastbone.

Muscle Strain

Speaking with CNN, Dr. Jellis noted that it is possible for someone to mistake a strained chest muscle for something more serious, like a heart attack.

“I had a patient who came in with chest pain and he was worried he was having a heart attack, after taking his history, I learned he had moved to a new house and hadn’t lifted heavy furniture in years.

“But he did the right thing, coming in” she says adding that doctors don’t expect patients to be able to tell the difference between a heart attack and a pulled chest muscle.


This is an inflammation where a rib bone meets up with the cartilage. Although doctors can’t always pinpoint what triggered the condition, the culprits can range from viral infections to chest injuries.

People usually feel a type of pressure on their chest wall  similar to a strained muscle or  tenderness when they press on the area.


This are painful acute inflammation of the nerve ganglia, with a skin eruption often forming a girdle around the middle of the body. It is caused by the same virus as chickenpox that  lingers in your body long after the spots have faded.

The first symptoms include itching and burning skin. If the area over the chest is affected, someone might mistake this new pain for a heart attack or other cardiac issue, CNN reports. If you suspect that you are suffering from shingles, seek medical attention.


This is an inflammation of the pericardium (the fibrous sac surrounding the heart). Symptoms typically include sudden onset of sharp chest pain.

The pain may also be felt in the shoulders, neck, or back. It is typically better sitting up and worse when lying down or breathing deeply.

Coronary artery disease (CAD)

This is a type of a heart disease caused by a buildup of plaque in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. Over time, cholesterol deposits lodge themselves in the walls of these arteries, which can blocks off blood flow and cause chest pain.

While CAD can cause a sudden heart attack, it can also contribute to heart failure.

What do you do if you have chest pain? Lie down; if caused by heart burn, take medicine for relief and some hot water; if caused by a muscle strain, use a cold pack; seek help from medical professional if pain persists.