Is Your Chest Pain Due to a Heart Attack — or Not?

Discover the symptoms heart attacks are more likely to cause
man sitting on couch having chest pain

Chest pain can be incredibly scary. Sometimes it comes out of nowhere and can take your breath away. It’s important to know that not all chest pain means you’re having a heart attack, even though that might be where your mind goes first.

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Discover three types of chest pain that usually signal a problem other than heart attack. Learn about the classic and subtle signs of heart attack as well. But when in doubt, call 9-1-1. Emergency care saves heart muscle.

Meanwhile, “if chest discomfort is fleeting but severe, or if pain is mild but never completely goes away, make an appointment to see your primary care doctor,” says Chete’ Eze-Nliam, MD.

Not all chest pain means you’re having a heart attack

…And not all heart attacks cause chest pain.

The classic signs of a heart attack to be aware of are:

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  • Killer chest pain (like an elephant sitting on your chest).
  • Pain radiating down your left arm.
  • Pounding or racing heart.
  • Sweating, especially the quick onset of cold sweating.

The more subtle signs of a heart attack may not be on your radar, such as:

  • Prolonged pain or discomfort in the arm, jaw, neck or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath, nausea, fatigue, lightheadedness and/or cold sweats.
  • Feeling of impending doom.

The biggest red flag that you’re having a heart attack is unrelenting pain, lasting five minutes or more.

However – we can’t say it enough – when in doubt, call 9-1-1.

To find comfort, you can try changing position, taking antacids, drinking water or taking deep breaths. These actions can feel helpful, but if the pain persists or recurs after your efforts, you should seek medical attention.

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Types of chest pain that usually do not signal a heart attack

You can breathe (a bit of) a sigh of relief knowing that not all chest pain immediately triggers a heart attack. Here are four other chest pain possibilities:

  • Brief “lightning bolt” or “electrical shock” sensations. Generally, a cracked rib, pulled chest-wall muscle or even shingles can cause this type of chest pain.
  • Pleurisy, pneumonia or asthma. Pinpoint discomfort that worsens when changing position. If chest pain shifts with breathing, it’s likely one of these three ailments.
  • Acid reflux. If sharp chest pain improves with movement and exercise, it’s most likely to be caused by an issue like acid reflux.
  • Panic attacks. A panic attack is very frightening, especially if you’ve never experienced one before. While not life-threatening, the sudden attack of fear and anxiety can interfere with your quality of life and mental health. Symptoms of a panic attack closely mirror the symptoms of a heart attack, but there is a way to tell the difference.

Remember, heart attack symptoms can vary, and women’s symptoms are usually more subtle than men’s. If you’re not sure what is causing your pain, err on the side of caution. Call 9-1-1.

If your chest discomfort is fleeting but severe, or if mild chest pain never completely goes away, make an appointment to see your primary care doctor as soon as possible.

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