Chest pain can come on suddenly at any time. You try to ignore it at first, but your chest pain has you scared and worried. Could you be having a heart attack? Should you go to the emergency room (ER)?
Chest pain is one of the most common reasons people call for emergency medical help. Every year emergency room doctors evaluate and treat millions of people for chest pain.
Fortunately, chest pain doesn't always signal a heart attack. Often chest pain is unrelated to any heart problem. But even if the chest pain you experience has nothing to do with your cardiovascular system, the problem may still be important — and worth the time spent in an emergency room for evaluation.
A wide range of health problems can cause chest pain. In many cases, the underlying cause has nothing to do with your heart — though there's no easy way to tell without seeing a doctor.
Chest pain related to cardiac problems
Chest pain related to noncardiac problems
When to see a doctor
Every minute is crucial if you're having a heart attack. A trip to the emergency room could save your life — or bring you peace of mind if nothing is seriously wrong with your health.
Don't drive yourself to the hospital, unless you have no other option. Driving yourself puts you and others at risk if your condition suddenly worsens.
Chest pain has many possible causes, all of which deserve medical attention.
Chest pain isn't always caused by heart problems. But, because you can't always determine the cause yourself, don't delay in seeking medical attention. ...
Preparing for your appointment
Call 911 or emergency medical help or have someone drive you to an emergency room if you experience new or unexplained chest pain or pressure that lasts for more than a few moments. Don't waste any time for fear of embarrassment if it's not a heart attack. Even if there's another cause for your chest pain, you need to be seen right away.
Have a family member or friend come with you, if possible. Someone who accompanies you can help soak up all the information provided during your evaluation.
Share this information on the way to the hospital:
Once you're at the hospital, it's likely that your medical evaluation will move ahead rapidly. Based on results from an electrocardiogram (ECG) and blood tests, your doctor may be able to quickly determine if you are having a heart attack — or give you another explanation for your symptoms. You'll probably have a number of questions at this point. If you haven't received the following information, you may want to ask:
Don't hesitate to ask any additional questions that occur to you during your medical evaluation.
What to expect from the doctor
Tests and diagnosis
At the emergency room or chest pain center — some large hospitals designate areas just for the evaluation of chest pain — you'll probably have your blood pressure, pulse and temperature checked right away. In addition, the doctor will ask a number of questions about your chest pain.
Chest pain doesn't always signal a heart attack. But that's what emergency room doctors will test for first because it's potentially the most immediate threat to your life. They may also check for an aortic dissection or life-threatening lung conditions — such as pulmonary embolism or a collapsed lung (pneumothorax) — that can cause chest pain.
Tests you may have to determine the cause of your chest pain include:
Many types of chest pain may at first seem related to heart problems. But often, after careful evaluation, doctors can distinguish the symptoms of noncardiac chest pain from the pain caused by a heart condition.
Treatments and drugs
Heart attack treatments
If you have unstable angina — chest pain while you're at rest — you may need immediate coronary catheterization followed by angioplasty and stenting. In some cases, you may need coronary bypass surgery.
Treatment for other cardiovascular conditions
Aortic dissection often requires emergency surgery.
Chest pain can be one of the most difficult symptoms to interpret. But spending time in the ER having your chest pain evaluated can bring you peace of mind, and may even save your life.
Last Updated: 2011-02-11
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