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Symptom: Chest Pain/Pressure

Experiencing chest pain can be frightening, especially if it comes on suddenly. Chest pain and pressure can be caused by many things besides a heart attack, such as indigestion, pneumonia, or a panic attack.1 It can be hard to tell what heart-related chest pain versus other types of chest pain might be.2

Chest pain should not be taken lightly. If you are experiencing severe chest pain that is accompanied by shortness of breath, sweating, and/or nausea you should call 911 and seek immediate assistance. If you are having mild chest pain, you should make an appointment to see your doctor and have it checked out. A physical exam, a thorough medical history, and a detailed discussion of symptoms can help your provider evaluate and/or rule out critical or life-threatening possibilities.1-2

Chest pain and heart attack symptoms

The warning signs of a heart attack are varied, and chest pain is just one of them. Some people who have heart attacks don’t get the classic chest pain, they might develop jaw or back pain, experience shortness of breath, fatigue, or nausea.1

Chest pain is the most common symptom of a heart attack. People experience chest pain in different ways.1 The onset of pain is typically quick and occurs over a few minutes. Some have classic chest pain. This has been described in numerous ways including:1-2

  • Severe pressure – like an elephant sitting on your chest
  • Excessive squeezing
  • Tightness across the chest
  • Pain in the middle of the chest
  • A sense of fullness
  • A burning sensation
  • Constant pain in the middle of the chest
  • Radiating pain in the arm, back, neck, or jaw

There are other warning signs of a heart attack and often express themselves differently in men and women.1 Women are more likely to experience shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and back or jaw pain.3

Heart failure can also cause chest pain and similar symptoms including:1-2

  • Increased shortness of breath
  • Pain, pinching, or weakness, in one or both arms
  • Pain or discomfort in the back, jaw, or neck
  • Sudden nausea or vomiting
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Facial flushing or breaking out in a cold sweat

Angina

Angina is a symptom of an underlying heart problem, most commonly coronary artery disease (CAD). There are many types of angina and they commonly cause chest pain. Angina is generally not immediately life-threatening.4

What to discuss with your doctor

Describing your symptoms will help your healthcare provider assess your heart risk profile. Details of what you are experiencing are important in evaluating your condition. They can help your provider assess whether your condition is heart-related or something else such as a digestive problem or anxiety. Make sure to describe:1,4

  • What kind of sensation do you feel? (pain, pressure, tightness, etc.)?
  • What is the location of the discomfort?
  • When did it begin?
  • Do the symptoms come and go?
  • Has the severity changed? Are the symptoms getting worse over time?
  • Did you do anything different before the symptoms began?
  • What are you doing when the symptoms start/stop?

If you experience a sudden change and increase in the number of symptoms or worsening symptoms – see your doctor right away. If you think you or someone you are with is having a heart attack, call 911 or your local emergency number and seek immediate medical attention.1

Written by: Linda Minton | Last reviewed: October 2019
  1. Chest pain: A heart attack or something else? Harvard Health. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/chest-pain-a-heart-attack-or-something-else. Accessed 9/12/19.
  2. Chest Pain. Mayo Clinic. Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/chest-pain/symptoms-causes/syc-20370838. Accessed 9/12/19.
  3. Heart Attack Symptoms in Women. American Heart Association. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/warning-signs-of-a-heart-attack/heart-attack-symptoms-in-women?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIn6GZ5fbI5AIVw5-zCh3hDgwjEAAYAiAAEgLfLfD_BwE. Accessed 9/11/19.
  4. Angina (Chest Pain). American Heart Association. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/angina-chest-pain. Accessed 9/11/19.