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what to do if you have chest pain

Chest pain is a common but frightening symptom that prompts many individuals to seek medical attention, raising the question, “What to do if you have chest pain?” Its causes can range from minor muscular strains to significant heart problems, making it a symptom that should never be ignored. Understanding the many causes of chest pain is essential for distinguishing between non-threatening and possibly fatal circumstances.

This article aims to demystify chest pain by outlining its numerous causes and highlighting when it becomes a cause for concern. By arming yourself with this knowledge and knowing what to do if you have chest pain, you may better navigate the steps to take when suffering chest pain, ensuring quick and successful treatment.

What Causes Chest Pains

Chest pain is a worrying symptom that can be caused by a variety of conditions, ranging from mild musculoskeletal ailments to potentially fatal heart abnormalities. By providing detailed instructions on what to do if you have chest pain, I hope to shed light on the complexity of this particular symptom and emphasize the importance of the right diagnosis for effective treatment.

Musculoskeletal Causes

Problems with the musculoskeletal system are frequently the source of chest pain. Simple activities, such as carrying heavy objects or performing unfamiliar exercises, can strain chest muscles and cause discomfort. Rib fractures or inflammation in the rib cartilage, known as costochondritis, cause intense, localized pains that worsen with activity or deep breathing. Understanding these origins is important because they frequently resolve with rest and over-the-counter pain treatment, posing no immediate threat to one’s health.

Digestive Causes

The digestive system can also cause chest pain. Acid reflux, also known as GERD, occurs when stomach acids irritate the esophagus, generating a burning sensation that is sometimes mistaken for heartburn. Conditions affecting the esophagus, such as esophageal spasms or motility abnormalities, can cause comparable symptoms. Although gallstones predominantly affect the gallbladder, they can also produce referred pain in the chest, confounding the diagnosis of chest discomfort.

Cardiac Causes

When chest pain is caused by a cardiac problem, it must be treated right away. Angina, myocardial infarction (heart attack), and pericarditis all cause chest pain as their predominant symptom. These conditions necessitate quick medical attention to avoid serious repercussions. Cardiac chest pain can take many forms, including pressure or a squeezing sensation, and it may be accompanied by symptoms like dizziness, nausea, and shortness of breath.

Other Causes

Non-musculoskeletal and non-digestive causes of chest pain exist as well. Pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, or pneumothorax can all induce acute, stabbing symptoms that worsen with heavy breathing. Psychological variables, such as panic attacks and anxiety, can resemble cardiac chest discomfort, causing additional uncertainty and stress.

In certain cases, viral infections such as COVID-19 have been linked to chest discomfort, expanding the range of possible causes and sparking questions about what to do if you have chest pain. The difficulties in identifying chest pain derive from the large range of possible causes. Each cause needs a unique therapeutic approach, emphasizing the necessity of understanding the nature and features of the pain, as well as knowing what to do if you have chest pain.

When to Worry About Chest Pain

When chest discomfort strikes, it is critical to determine whether it is an emergency. Not all chest pains are severe, but symptoms such as extreme pain, radiating discomfort, and accompanied shortness of breath or nausea may indicate serious heart problems that require rapid medical attention. Furthermore, some risk factors, such as a history of heart disease, lifestyle choices, and age, can increase the likelihood of experiencing cardiac-related chest pain. Understanding these early warning flags and risk factors is critical for providing timely and effective treatments for chest pain.

Immediate Red Flags

Chest pain can range in severity, with some cases being non-threatening and others indicating major health difficulties. It’s important to understand when chest pain necessitates rapid medical assistance.

  • Severe, Acute Chest Pain: If the chest pain is strong and feels like heavy pressure, it’s time to seek immediate medical attention.
  • Radiating Pain: Pain that radiates to the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach is especially alarming.
  • Accompanying Symptoms: Chest pain should be handled seriously if it is accompanied by shortness of breath, lightheadedness, sweating, feeling nauseated, and fainting.

If you experience these signs, which could suggest a heart attack or other severe cardiac conditions, it’s crucial to know what to do. Seeking immediate medical attention is imperative in such situations.

Risk Factors to Consider

Certain people are more likely to experience chest pain as a result of heart problems, which can be influenced by variables such as a personal or family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, raised cholesterol levels, diabetes, or smoking.

Furthermore, age is a key risk factor, with men over 45 and women over 55 being more vulnerable to cardiac issues. Recognizing these risk factors will help you determine whether your chest pain is caused by a cardiac condition, allowing you to have more focused discussions with your doctor.

Diagnostic Process

When experiencing chest pain, it’s important to understand the diagnostic process that healthcare professionals follow to identify the cause:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG): Typically the initial test to evaluate heart function and identify any irregularities.
  • Blood Tests: Used to detect specific enzymes that can signify damage to the heart muscle.
  • Imaging Tests: These may include chest X-rays, echocardiograms, or MRIs to provide a clear view of the heart and lungs, contributing to a more accurate diagnosis.
  • Stress Tests: In certain cases, monitoring heart activity during physical exertion is necessary to assess heart health more thoroughly.

These diagnostic steps are essential in creating an effective treatment plan tailored to the specific cause of the chest pain.

Preventive Measures and Lifestyle Changes

While not all causes of chest discomfort are preventable, leading a heart-healthy lifestyle can significantly reduce your risk of cardiac problems. Here are some precautions you can take to prevent infections and illnesses that can cause chest pain:

  • Adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle can greatly lower your risk of cardiac problems.
  • Key lifestyle indicators include:
    • Engaging in regular physical activity
    • Eating a healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fats
    • Maintaining a healthy body weight
    • Quitting smoking
  • Implementing stress management techniques (such as relaxation, meditation, and counseling) can reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • Regular medical check-ups are critical, especially for people with heart disease risk factors, as they allow for early detection and prevention of catastrophic problems.

It is critical to swiftly diagnose and handle chest discomfort, seeking immediate medical attention or visiting a doctor as needed, depending on the severity and accompanying symptoms.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How can I calm my chest pain?
A: To calm down chest pain, try resting, practicing deep breathing or relaxation techniques, and taking prescribed medication if you have a known heart condition. If the pain is severe, persistent, or accompanied by other symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.

Q: How do I know if my chest pain is serious?
A: Chest pain is considered serious if it is intense, persistent, accompanied by symptoms such as shortness of breath, dizziness, or nausea, or if it spreads to your arm, back, or jaw. In these circumstances, seek medical assistance immediately.

Q: What is the first thing to do in chest pain?

A: If you experience chest pain, the first thing to do is to stop any physical activity and sit or lie down in a comfortable position to assess the situation. If the pain is severe, persistent, or accompanied by other alarming symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.

Q: How can I relieve chest pain fast?
A: For quick relief, rest, practice deep breathing, and if prescribed, take nitroglycerin or aspirin. If pain persists or is severe, seek immediate medical attention.

Q: What to do if you have chest pain that won’t go away?
A: Seek immediate medical attention if you have persistent chest pain that won’t go away, to address any potentially serious underlying issues.




Chest pain is a multifaceted symptom with a wide range of potential causes, from the benign to the life-threatening. Recognizing when chest pain is a cause for concern and understanding the associated risk factors and symptoms can save lives. Immediate medical attention is crucial for severe or unexplained chest pain, especially when accompanied by other symptoms like shortness of breath, nausea, or dizziness.

Adopting preventive measures and lifestyle changes can also play a significant role in reducing the risk of chest-related issues. Remember, when in doubt, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and consult a healthcare professional.

Written by: Dr Michael MacDonald MB ChB, BSc (Hons), MRCP (UK), MD (Research), FESC (Europe). Dr MacDonald was trained in the UK and is a senior Consultant Cardiologist. Updated 20 August 202

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