When To Worry About Chest Pain

Don’t ignore chest pressure that lingers and can’t be explained
Woman helping man with chest pain

Sounding the alarm over a body ache isn’t what you generally do … but this is a pain in your chest. A terrifying two-word combo — heart attack — immediately starts creeping into your thoughts.

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Should you be worried? Unfortunately, that’s a tough question to answer with just a “yes” or “no.” Not every type of chest pain signals a heart attack. Of course, some chest pains are warning signs of a heart attack.

So, if you’re concerned about your situation and feel a “sense of doom,” call 911. Don’t guess and gamble with your life, emphasizes preventive cardiologist Luke J. Laffin, MD.

With that said, let’s look at chest pain as a heart attack red flag.

Signs of a heart attack

Chest pain is a frequent symptom of a heart attack — and it deserves your attention, says Dr. Laffin.

A heart attack often brings an unrelenting sensation of pressure, heaviness or tightness to your chest. Many describe it as feeling like “an elephant” is sitting on top of you. As you might expect, it can be very uncomfortable.

It’s not unusual for the pain to radiate to other areas of your body, too. This can include your back, neck and jaw, and down your left arm.

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“If your discomfort lasts for three minutes or more, or quickly worsens, there’s a real possibility you are having a heart attack or are about to have one,” says Dr. Laffin. “Seeking immediate medical attention may save your life.”

The chest pain may come with other symptoms, too, including:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy.
  • Nausea.
  • Fatigue.
  • Sweating.

Could your chest pain be a heart attack?

Answering these questions may help you determine whether your chest pain is a heart attack or being brought on by something else.

Is the chest pain sharp and short?

It’s unusual for a heart attack to produce intense, focused pain. A stabbing pain of short duration is more likely to come from a bone or nerve problem (like a cracked rib or pulled chest muscle).

“This type of pain may be actually more painful than a heart attack, but it will go away fairly quickly,” states Dr. Laffin. “Chest pain from a heart attack can last 30 minutes — and sometimes longer.”

Does changing positions help?

If shifting around makes your chest pain lessen or go away, odds are you’re not dealing with a heart attack. Chest pain that dwindles with positioning may instead be linked to a lung issue such as pneumonia or asthma.

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“If you are having a heart attack, you will not be able to find a position that makes the pain go away,” explains Dr. Laffin. “Heart attack victims describe the discomfort as relentless.”

Do antacids ease the pain?

Acid reflux, or heartburn, can make you pretty uncomfortable. How bad can it be? Put it this way: The burning sensation from stomach acid rising into your esophagus in many ways mimics the feeling of a heart attack.

Telling the two apart can be difficult. But if popping antacids eases the pain, your issues likely started in your gut instead of your heart.

Does activity make the pain go away?

You can’t walk off a heart attack. So, if moving around makes the pain subside, it’s probably not a heart attack, reiterates Dr. Laffin. (On the flip side, look to get immediate medical care if activity suddenly makes your chest pain worse.)

Bottom line

Know that not every heart attack feels the same way. In fact, some people experience a heart attack and don’t even know it. These “silent heart attacks” are no less dangerous than any other kind of myocardial infarction.

But if unexplained chest pain strikes, getting checked out may be a life-saving decision. Play it safe and call 911 unless you can quickly and confidently rule out a heart attack, stresses Dr. Laffin.

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