Chest Pain

Part 1 - Chest Pain and its Many Causes

Female doctor examining patient with stethoscope
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Few symptoms are more alarming than chest pain, because many equate chest pain with heart pain. And while it turns out that chest pain is quite often caused by non-cardiac causes, if you have chest pain you should never dismiss it out of hand as being "probably nothing to worry about."

The purpose of this article is to help you understand chest pain - what it feels like, what types of conditions can cause it, how it should be evaluated, and when to regard it as an emergency.

What Is Chest Pain?

"Chest pain" is a less precise term than you might think. It is often used to describe any pain, pressure, squeezing, choking, numbness or any other discomfort in the chest, neck, or upper abdomen, and is often associated with pain in the jaw, head, or arms. Depending on the underlying cause, symptoms can last from less than a second to days or weeks, can occur frequently or rarely, and might occur either sporadically and unpredictably, or under specific conditions and quite predictably.

The reason "chest pain" encompasses such a broad range of symptoms is that chest pain can be produced by a similarly broad range of medical conditions. Because chest pain can accompany medical conditions ranging from catastrophic to trivial, when a person experiences chest pain it is important for a doctor to characterize that pain as rapidly as possible, to determine whether it represents a problem that is likely benign, or possibly significant.

In the next part of this article we will talk about how doctors ought to evaluate the symptom of chest pain, in order to rapidly determine the seriousness of the underlying cause. But first we will list the most common causes of chest pain.

What Medical Conditions Can Cause Chest Pain?

Here is a list of the more common causes of chest pain, roughly in the order in which they are seen in a typical hospital emergency room.

Click on any of these causes of chest pain for more details:

Be Sure To Read Part 2 - Evaluating Chest Pain


Buntinx F, Knockaert D, Bruyninckx R, et al. Chest pain in general practice or in the hospital emergency department: is it the same? Fam Pract 2001; 18:586.

Ruigómez A, Rodríguez LA, Wallander MA, et al. Chest pain in general practice: incidence, comorbidity and mortality. Fam Pract 2006; 23:167.

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