The Many Causes of Chest Pain

Female doctor examining patient with stethoscope
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Chest pain is not a symptom you should ever ignore, for obvious reasons — it may indicate a cardiac problem. For this reason alone, if you have chest pain you should be evaluated by a doctor. Making an expeditious diagnosis of angina(chest discomfort caused by insufficient blood flow to the heart muscle), or even an actual heart attack, can permit the appropriate treatment to prevent permanent heart damage.

 

Many people who are evaluated for chest pain, however, are diagnosed with conditions that have nothing to do with the heart. This is because chest discomfort is a common symptom that accompanies many different medical problems. Some of these medical problems are quite significant and require aggressive treatment. Others are basically benign and are often treated with reassurance.

But either way, if you have chest pain — whether or not it turns out to be cardiac in nature — you need to be seen by a doctor. 

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 quite serious.

What Medical Conditions Can Cause Chest Pain?

Chest pain can be caused by medical conditions affecting any of the organs located in the chest or upper abdomen, including the heart, blood vessels, lungs, airways, muscles, bones, esophagus or stomach. 

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. Follow the links provided for more details on each condition: 

What Should You Do If You Have Chest Pain?

From this list of conditions that can produce chest pain, it should be obvious that, if you have chest pain, you need to be evaluated by a doctor.

But how can you tell if your chest pain is dangerous, or constitutes an emergency? And what should you expect the doctor to do in order to make a quick and accurate diagnosis? While there are no hard and fast rules to answer these questions, there are some general guidelines that can be very helpful. Read more about how chest pain should be evaluated.

Sources:

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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