Authored by Sara Hoen

Chest pains do not always signal a heart attack. Here’s what they could mean instead

December 15, 2022 | Cardiology

If you’ve ever experienced the discomforting sensation of a tightening chest and restricted breathing, you’re probably no stranger to the panic and frantic googling of the phrase “heart attack symptoms”. This reaction is fair, especially considering heart disease is the number one leading cause of death for people in the United States.

While chest pain or discomfort should never be taken lightly, it’s also important to recognize the different types of chest pain and what they could signal. Before diving in, however, let’s take a closer look at why heart attacks happen:

A healthy heart relies on oxygen-rich blood to survive. Blood is pumped to the heart through vessels called coronary arteries. When those arteries become constricted, blood doesn’t flow to the heart, and oxygen is cut off, resulting in a heart attack.

Someone experiencing a heart attack might not feel any symptoms at first, or they may feel them gradually. The most common indicator of a heart attack is pressure or tightness in the chest, also known as angina. Shortness of breath can often be triggered by chest discomfort, but it might also begin independently. Pain or discomfort in the arms, shoulders, neck, or jaw are usual symptoms as well.

Although these symptoms are most commonly associated with heart attacks, they could also be signs of different conditions. Some possibilities include:

You have a lung infection

If you’re experiencing a sharp, stabbing pain in your chest when trying to take deep breaths, it might be a lung-related issue. Pleurisy is a condition in which the pleura (the tissue that protects your lungs from rubbing against your chest) becomes swollen or inflamed through bacterial or viral infections. If caught early, antibiotics or antifungal medication can be prescribed to treat the infection.

Another more serious lung condition causing chest pain and shortness of breath is known as a pulmonary embolism, which happens when a blood-clot blocks an artery from transporting blood to the lungs. If not treated in a timely manner, the clot may grow and more clots may form, making the issue life-threatening.

Your chest wall is fractured

One other explanation for sharp, stabbing chest pain could be Costochondritis, or chest wall pain syndrome.

All of the bones and tissues in your ribs, sternum, and spine make up your chest wall. Sometimes, the cartilage that connects the ribs to the sternum can become inflamed due to musculoskeletal problems, such as rib fractures, injuries, or underlying illnesses, resulting in chest pain that can be mistaken for cardiac issues.

Your pain isn’t heart-related at all

Any chest pain not caused by a heart dysfunction is known as Noncardiac Chest Pain. Most of the time, chest discomfort that isn’t heart-related is caused by irritation of the esophagus, or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). Remember the burning sensation in your chest and throat after eating a greasy meal? Heartburn is a common symptom of esophageal irritation and can become severe enough to trigger other reactions, such as pressure, tightness, or pain in the chest.

Another form of noncardiac chest pain is what’s known as a panic disorder. Poor mental health shouldn’t be overlooked in regards to chest pain, because it can often bring on symptoms of a panic attack. The symptoms experienced in a panic attack closely resemble that of a heart attack, such as chest pressure, dizziness, and shortness of breath. However, the pain in heart attacks will usually spread to other parts of the body, such as the neck, jaw, and arms, whereas panic attack pains will generally stay in the chest area.

If you’re experiencing chest pain of any kind, never hesitate to seek medical help immediately. If you are in need of non-emergent cardiac services, Revere Health has an experienced team of cardiologists ready to help with a wide range of heart-related issues.

Zahra Nielsen


Zahra Nielsen

Zahra Nielsen currently serves as Revere Health’s Community Relations Specialist. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Science from Utah Valley University with the intention of working with at-risk communities, but she has since found a love for community engagement, volunteerism, and outreach. Since graduating, her career has taken her to non-profit organizations across the country. From Washington D.C, New York, and Salt Lake City, she has had the opportunity to work with notable organizations such as the National Council for Adoption, Volunteers of America, and United Way. After years of working in different areas of community engagement, Zahra has found her niche in writing. She hopes to pursue this creative form of outreach as a way of inspiring community members to be mindful of their well-being and the well-being of others. In her free time, Zahra likes to practice and teach yoga. She also enjoys live theatre, listening to music, and watching endless hours of quirky movies and TV shows with her husband.

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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.