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Sharp Health News

What is that chest pain?

July 19, 2017

What is that chest pain?

There it is again — that heavy pressure, fleeting jolt or other mysterious pain in the chest. Should you be concerned? Should you go to the doctor or ignore it?

Most of us may have experienced chest pain at some point in our lives. The uncertainty of what could be causing the pain can be scary. We may quickly assume that there could be something wrong with our heart. However, not all chest pains are created equal, nor are they all caused by heart problems.

"The chest contains other organs and structures aside from the heart, all of which have the potential to cause chest pain," says Dr. Bryant Nguyen, a cardiologist associated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. "Pain could be due to a variety of issues, including acid reflux, breathing or lung problems, or muscle or tendon strain, among other things. Some pains require a doctor's immediate attention, while others may not be as significant. Regardless, if you are experiencing any sort of chest pain, tell your doctor so that it can be properly assessed."

Here are some questions to ask yourself to better decode chest pains:

How does the pain feel?
Non-heart-related chest pain is mostly sharp and easier to pinpoint, while chest pain from the heart is typically a heavy pressure, tightness, burning or squeezing.

Heart-related pain may be felt deep in the chest, as opposed to on the surface. It may also be difficult to pinpoint an exact location of heart-related pain. Often the pain may radiate to the back, arms, throat or jaw.

When does it occur? How long does it last?
Chest pain that occurs during exercise, shoveling, walking up stairs or other activities where you are exerting yourself are red flags that may indicate a heart problem. Heart-related pain usually will continue for several minutes or until the activity is stopped.

On the other hand, non-heart-related chest pain or discomfort is more likely to occur out of nowhere and may last for only a few seconds. This type of pain may be due to a muscle or bone injury, nerve pain or inflammation.

What makes the pain go away or worsen?
Heart-related chest pain occurs with exertion and stops with rest. A certain type of heart pain, called angina, occurs when your heart muscle needs more oxygen than what can be supplied. Laying down, sudden cold temperature and emotional stress may worsen angina.

In contrast, non-heart-related chest pain may improve with exertion or exercise.

"Sharp chest pain that goes away when you exert yourself is an indicator that the pain is not related to a heart condition," says Dr. Nguyen.

Other things that may bring relief to non-heart-related chest pain include deep breathing; pain medications, such as aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen; a heating pad; or antacids - which can relieve muscle, joint and gastrointestinal pain.

When should I get help?
Call 911 or get help right away if you experience pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest that:

  • Radiates to the arms, jaw, neck, back or stomach
  • Is accompanied with lightheadedness, shortness of breath, a cold sweat, fatigue or nausea
  • Lasts for five minutes or longer, as these symptoms may be a sign of a heart attack

"Chest pains are often unrelated to the heart," says Dr. Nguyen. "However, if you are an older adult who has risk factors for heart disease and experiences any kind of pain, it's important to see a doctor for a thorough evaluation."

For the news media: To talk with Dr. Nguyen about chest pains for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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