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When You have Chest Pain- What Does it Mean, What Should you Do?


Each year, about 5 million people in the U.S. go to the emergency department because of chest pain. Most of them are not having a heart attack or other serious problem.

In fact, chest pain can be a symptom of a number of causes not related to heart attack. These can include

  • Heartburn
  • Pulled muscle
  • Panic or anxiety
  • Shingles
  • Pneumonia
  • Bronchitis
  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux syndrome)

    Does that mean you should wait and see what happens when you experience chest pain? No. Because chest pain can be extremely serious. You can't always tell whether your pain is serious or simply something that will go away in time. And chest pain is the most common sign of a heart attack.

    When should you call 9-1-1?

    Call 9-1-1 if you experience the following symptoms:

  • Chest discomfort or pain that lasts more than few minutes or that goes away and comes back. Some people describe it as pressure or a squeezing sensation.
  • Pain in one or both arms, your jaw, your back, neck or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Lightheadedness

    Common symptoms before a heart attack

    Before a heart attack, it's common to experience the following symptoms:

  • An unusual level of fatigue
  • Major sleep difficulty
  • Shortness of breath
  • Indigestion
  • Anxiety

    Angina: a common cause of chest pain

    Angina is almost always a symptom of coronary heart disease. Its most common characteristic is pain in the chest. The pain occurs when there's either a sharp decrease in blood supply to the heart, an increased demand for blood to the heart (which can occur during exercise, for example) or a combination of both factors.

    The pain of angina is similar to the pain of a heart attack:

  • Tightness, heaviness, pressure or burning sensation in the chest
  • Discomfort that can spread to the arm, jaw, stomach, neck or back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Tingling sensation or numbness in the shoulders, arms or wrists

    You tend to feel the pain of angina when you exert yourself-when you carry something heavy up the steps, for example. Becoming extremely upset can also bring on angina pain, as can spending time in very hot or very cold weather.

    If you're experiencing this kind of chest pain or discomfort, be sure to see your doctor. It's important to determine the cause, and begin treatment, if necessary, as soon as possible.

    Read more about angina-including lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of heart attack.

    American Heart Association; National Institute of Nursing Research; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
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