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Chest pain is defined as a sense of discomfort in the chest area. The sensation can be felt in many forms, from a sharp stab to a dull ache.
It can also be felt as heaviness or pressure around the chest or burning, sharp, shooting pain that travels up the neck, into the jaw, and then back or down one or both the arms.
Many problems can cause chest pain. It can even stem from serious heart or lung problems in some cases. (1)
What are the causes of chest pain?
Chest pain can occur due to several causes. In fact, every tissue that composes the chest wall can be potentially responsible for the chest pain.
For example, if someone has shingles, they can have chest pain arising from the nerves in the skin. Sore muscles in the chest wall can also trigger the pain.
Fractured ribs are yet another potential cause of chest pain. Other problems with the rib cage can also give rise to chest discomfort and pain, such as arthritis involving the rib cage joints or inflammation of the cartilaginous part of the rib cage known as costochondritis.
Chest pain can also arise from the outer layer of the heart (pericarditis) or lungs (pleurisy).
Pain from blockages in the arteries of the heart (coronary artery disease) can cause angina on exertion. This pain tends to get worse on exertion and relieved with rest. (2)
What are the signs and symptoms of chest pain?
Symptoms of chest pain include chest pressure or heaviness in the central chest, epigastric area, or left/right side chest wall. This pain can also be felt as sharp or shooting pain.
At times, chest pain is associated with pain or discomfort in the arm, jaw, neck, or back. Signs of chest pain may include high or low blood pressure, high or low heart rate, and increased respiratory rate.
It may be associated with diaphoresis or profuse sweating.
How to know if chest pains are serious?
Any chest pain that is out of proportion to the possible etiology is concerning.
Patients who experience chest pain or pressure along with severe shortness of breath, low blood pressure, elevated heart rate, dizziness or passing out (syncope), and left arm or jaw pain are at increased risk of having coronary artery disease.
Patients with a blood clot in the lung artery (pulmonary embolism) usually experience chest pain or pressure along with hypoxia or low blood oxygen level.
The simultaneous occurrence of these signs and symptoms can point to a serious underlying cause and therefore warrants prompt medical attention.
What is the first aid for chest pain?
For someone with severe chest pain that has serious features, as explained above, chewing one tablet of aspirin 325 mg may help.
If, however, the pain remains persistent or becomes aggravated after taking the aspirin, contact your doctor immediately.
One should also call Emergency Medical Services (EMS) for prompt evaluation and medical care before the condition becomes any more serious.
How is a heart attack different from chest pain?
Heart attacks can manifest differently in different people. In the absence of any standard symptoms, it can be very difficult to distinguish a heart attack from regular chest pain.
While chest pain can occur due to several reasons, a heart attack is one serious type of chest pain or pressure that happens due to blockage in one of the arteries of the heart.
A heart attack is an extremely serious condition that, if not managed promptly by trained medical personnel, can result in rapid deterioration and can potentially be fatal.
A heart attack can also result in heart failure or sudden cardiac death. (3)
What are the signs and symptoms of a heart attack?
Patients can also experience palpitations and irregular heartbeats. For most patients, it is the worst chest pain they have ever experienced.
In addition, some patients feel atypical symptoms such as abdominal pain, back pain, nausea, and vomiting, which are mostly observed in women and older patients.
What is the first aid for a heart attack?
The first aid for a heart attack is to chew on a 325 mg tablet of aspirin for immediate relief. This also buys you some time to get professional help.
Meanwhile, you must immediately call an ambulance to be taken to the nearest emergency center for proper evaluation and further management if the pain persists.
How do you know if chest pain is heart-related?
Chest pain may be related to the heart if it gets triggered or aggravated by exertion or physical activity. Thus, the chest pain or pressure stemming from an arterial blockage in the heart worsens with exertion and relieved with rest.
On the contrary, the chest pain due to a heart attack usually happens at rest and can get worse with time. (5)
What could be done to avoid chest pain in the long run?
To avoid chest pain from heart-related conditions, you should follow a healthy lifestyle that consists of good sleep hygiene, a scheduled exercise regimen consisting of aerobic activity, and a wholesome, well-balanced diet.
In addition, patients with risk factors for heart disease, including hypertension (increased blood pressure), hyperlipidemia (increased cholesterol levels), diabetes mellitus, smoking, and a strong family history of heart disease should do everything they can to manage these risk factors to avoid any cardiovascular emergencies in the future.