A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Chest pain and discomfort: What you need to know

Man holding his chest - Chest pain that isn't a heart attack

You can experience chest pain for a variety of reasons. To be safe, discuss your symptoms with your provider.

Chest discomfort could indicate a heart, gastrointestinal or other issue. In any case, it should be discussed with your medical provider.

“Only when you talk to an expert can you tell if there is something serious that needs immediate attention,” said Dr. Shereif Rezkalla, a Marshfield Clinic cardiologist.

Heart attack or something else?

Chest discomfort that is related to an underlying heart issue often will occur with exertion like exercise.

“When the discomfort is related to a heart issue, it is rarely painful,” Dr. Rezkalla said. “When it is heart related, the discomfort usually manifests as pressure, burning or tightness.”

That is unless the chest discomfort is related to a heart attack. If chest pain is due to a heart attack, the pain likely will be severe and persistent. A heart attack also may be accompanied by shortness of breath, nausea and lightheadedness.

The pain that comes with angina often feels similar to heart attack pain. The difference is, with angina, pain will come and go instead of being persistent. Indigestion could be a warning sign for angina or heart attack.

If your pain is extremely localized to one area, it is probably not a heart attack.

“If you have a stabbing pain that you can point to with one finger in one area, it is usually not a heart attack,” Rezkalla said.

Other serious problems chest pain may indicate

Aortic dissection is another serious problem that could be signaled by chest pain. The aorta is the largest artery in the body and it can tear. When this happens, it is very serious and immediate medical attention is needed.

Chest pain also could occur as a result of inflammation in or a rupture of the esophagus.

“That will result in severe pain and is very serious,” Rezkalla said. “Pain from the aorta and esophagus are usually very intense.”

Rezkalla said the first thing he will do with a patient who comes in with chest pain is get a detailed history and then physically examine the person. An EKG test may follow.

If you have concerns about chest pain, consult with your provider.

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