Experiencing any kind of chest pain can be frightening. The first thing we think of is heart trouble, and this by itself is alarming. There are, however, other causes of pains in the chest and, while it’s not something to ignore, in many cases it’s not life threatening.
Understanding the different types of chest pain and their likely causes can be reassuring. In fact, very often just realizing that the pain doesn’t stem from problems with the heart can be enough to make the pain subside.
Cardiac Related Chest Pain
Pain that stems from the heart feels very different to that associated with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) or acid reflux, which is a digestive disorder and a common cause of chest pain.
Heart pain is characterized by its deep, unrelenting nature. Sufferers report feeling as though a heavy or constricting weight is on their chest, or as though their chest is in a vice.
It’s a diffuse kind of pain that’s often hard to pinpoint unlike, for instance, stomach ache where you can indicate exactly where in your body the pain is. Cardiac pain can be felt in the arms (normally the left one), the jaw, neck, shoulders or back. Changing bodily position, such as sitting up or lying down has no effect on the discomfort. Neither does changing your breathing rate or how deeply you breathe.
Other symptoms, apart from the pain, can include:
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
- Feeling sick
- Feeling nauseous
- Being short of breath
- A numb sensation in left arm or shoulder
Heart pain is often triggered by exercise or exertion, or upper arm movement or strain such as when carrying heavy loads. Extreme temperatures can also bring it on, or it can start after eating a heavy meal. If it comes on during exercise, stopping the exertion will usually see the pain subside. It can also come and go throughout the day.
Family history and lifestyle traits can also give a clue as to whether chest pain stems from heart problems. The seven common risk factors are:
- Family history of heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- High stress levels
- Being overweight
Generally, if you can tick two of those risk factors your chances of having or developing heart disease are greater.
Angina is a little different from the pain of heart attack, as the pain can be sharp and feel similar to that caused by acid reflux. Pain from angina is also, like GERD, relieved by changing bodily position, such as sitting up. The pain can be worse when lying down. If you suspect angina, seek medical help immediately. While the pain can subside by itself, the underlying causes are serious and always need medical treatment.
Non-Cardiac Chest Pain
Chest pain from acid reflux, or GERD, is often sharp and highly localized. If someone asked you to point to where it hurts, you’d have no trouble showing them exactly where the problem was. It feels closer to the surface of your body rather than buried deep in the chest. It can come on quickly and go away just as fast, lasting anywhere from several minutes to several hours. Common causes are fried or spicy foods, along with citrus fruits.
Unlike cardiac chest pain, exercise can actually help relieve pain from GERD, as can changing position such as sitting up straight or breathing shallowly. It’s common to feel a sharper stab of pain when inhaling deeply, and coughing can also make it worse.
Regular, over the counter analgesics can relieve this type of pain, such as ibuprofen or aspirin. Even the simple reassurance that it’s not a heart-related problem can help relieve the pain since anxiety subsides with the knowledge that you’re not in any true danger.
Other symptoms of GERD pain are:
- A burning sensation in the chest or throat
- A sour taste caused by the acid from the stomach
- Difficulty swallowing
- Excessive burping or belching
Other Causes of Chest Pain
As well as cardiac disorders or digestive problems, there are several other conditions that can bring on chest pain. These include:
- Chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia
- Blood pressure
- Panic attacks
- Injured ribs
- Blood clots in the lungs
Chest pain should never be ignored, and you should always err on the side of caution, especially if you have any of the heart disease risk factors listed above or if you experience any of the persistent symptoms of heart pain. It’s far better to have a false alarm than wait too long before seeking medical help.