First aid: Chest pain
Causes of chest pain can vary from minor problems, such as indigestion or stress, to serious medical emergencies, such as a heart attack or pulmonary embolism. The specific cause of chest pain is often difficult to interpret.
Finding the cause of your chest pain can be challenging, especially if you've never had symptoms in the past. Even doctors may have a difficult time deciding if chest pain is a sign of a heart attack or something less serious, such as indigestion. If you have unexplained chest pain lasting more than a few minutes, you should seek emergency medical assistance rather than trying to diagnose the cause yourself.
As with other sudden, unexplained pains, chest pain may be a signal for you to get medical help. Use the following information to help you determine whether your chest pain is a medical emergency.Heart attack
A heart attack occurs when an artery that supplies oxygen to your heart muscle becomes blocked. A heart attack may cause chest pain that lasts 15 minutes or longer. But a heart attack can also be silent and produce no signs or symptoms.
Many people who experience a heart attack have warning symptoms hours, days or weeks in advance. The earliest warning sign of an attack may be ongoing episodes of chest pain that start when you're physically active, but are relieved by rest.
Someone having a heart attack may experience any or all of the following:
If you or someone else may be having a heart attack:
Angina is a type of chest pain or discomfort caused by reduced blood flow to your heart muscle. Angina may be stable or unstable:
Angina is relatively common, but can be hard to distinguish from other types of chest pain, such as the pain or discomfort of indigestion.
Angina signs and symptoms include:
The severity, duration and type of angina can vary. If you have new or changing chest pain, these new or different symptoms may signal a more dangerous form of angina (unstable angina) or a heart attack. If your angina gets worse or changes, becoming unstable, seek medical attention immediately.Pulmonary embolism
Pulmonary embolism occurs when a clot — usually from the veins of your leg or pelvis — lodges in an artery of your lung. The lung tissue served by the artery doesn't get enough blood flow, causing tissue death. This makes it more difficult for your lungs to provide oxygen to the rest of your body.
Signs and symptoms of pulmonary embolism include:
Pulmonary embolism can be life-threatening. As with a suspected heart attack, call 911 or emergency medical assistance immediately.Aortic dissection
An aortic dissection is a serious condition in which a tear develops in the inner layer of the aorta, the large blood vessel branching off the heart. Blood surges through this tear into the middle layer of the aorta, causing the inner and middle layers to separate (dissect). If the blood-filled channel ruptures through the outside aortic wall, aortic dissection is usually fatal.
If you think aortic dissection is the cause of your chest pain, seek emergency medical assistance immediately.Pneumonia with pleurisy
Frequent signs and symptoms of pneumonia are chest pain accompanied by chills, fever and a cough that may produce bloody or foul-smelling sputum. When pneumonia occurs with an inflammation of the membranes that surround the lung (pleura), you may have considerable chest discomfort when inhaling or coughing. This condition is called pleurisy.
One sign of pleurisy is that the pain is usually relieved temporarily by holding your breath or putting pressure on the painful area of your chest. This isn't true of a heart attack. If you've recently been diagnosed with pneumonia and then start having symptoms of pleurisy, contact your doctor or seek immediate medical attention to determine the cause of your chest pain. Pleurisy alone isn't a medical emergency, but you shouldn't try to make the diagnosis yourself.Chest wall pain
One of the most common varieties of harmless chest pain is chest wall pain. One kind of chest wall pain is costochondritis. It causes pain and tenderness in and around the cartilage that connects your ribs to your breastbone (sternum).
In costochondritis, pressing on a few points along the edge of your sternum often results in considerable tenderness in those small areas. If the pressure of a finger causes similar chest pain, it's unlikely that a serious condition, such as a heart attack, is the cause of your chest pain.
Other causes of chest pain include:
Last Updated: 2010-01-09
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