- You can know if your chest pains are serious by assessing your symptoms and medical history.
- If you feel severe chest pain and also exhibit risk factors for heart disease – like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes – it may indicate a serious heart condition like a heart attack or angina.
- Chest pain can also be indigestion, muscle soreness, or an anxiety attack, and while these aren’t serious heart conditions, if you’re concerned about any new or worsening chest pain, it’s worth having it checked out by a doctor.
- This article was reviewed by Hina W. Chaudhry, MD, director of cardiovascular regenerative medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Severe chest pain is a common sign of a heart attack. But heart attacks aren’t the only health condition that can cause chest pain.
Here’s what you need to know to determine the severity of your chest pain and when you should seek medical attention.
How to know if chest pains indicate a heart attack
According to Ajay Kirtane, MD, interventional cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian and Columbia University Medical Centre, a heart attack is associated with one or more of the following symptoms.
“Chest pain that signals a heart attack is pain that doesn’t go away, that worsens when a person tries to be more active, as well as shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, or even passing out,” says Kirtane. “Others may experience severe pain for 30 minutes or less, nagging pain that continues to get worse over time, and out of the blue chest pressure that feels like an elephant is sitting on your chest.”
In addition, there are key factors associated with a higher risk of a heart attack: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, or a family history of heart disease. If you have one, or multiple, of these key risk factors and feel the symptoms above, you should seek medical attention immediately.
Common causes of chest pains
There are many other causes of chest pain that don’t necessarily indicate a heart attack. According to Kirtane, these include:
- Angina.Angina occurs when there’s a lack of blood flow and oxygen to the heart, and is a symptom of coronary artery disease – which can ultimately lead to a heart attack if left untreated. It is often associated with exercise and physical activity, and you may feel cramping, pressure, or pinching in your chest that makes you wince.
- Heartburn. Reflux, known as heartburn, is caused by stomach acid coming into your esophagus that feels like a burning sensation in your throat and chest. “Reflux is precipitated by a meal, and more often is felt when lying down,” says Kirtane. Indigestive pain may feel similar to angina, so consider your eating habits before worrying too much about your heart.
- Muscle pain. “Younger people may more commonly experience musculoskeletal pain; things like a strained muscle that hurts more when a patient moves or moves their arm around,” says Kirtane. Young athletes can also experience trauma or inflammation in their chest, which comes with repeated contact in physical competitions.
- Anxiety. Anxiety can lead to panic attacks, which may resemble a heart attack, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Symptoms of a panic attack can include chest pain along with shortness of breath, heart palpitations, dizziness, vertigo, and sweating.
Ultimately, if you’re concerned about chest pain, you should consider seeing a doctor – even if you don’t think it’s as pressing as a heart attack.
“In general, all chest pains should be taken seriously,” says Kirtane. “Often, younger people sort of wait it out if they experience chest pains. Don’t wait it out.”
Chest pain may differ by age and gender
As Kirtane suggests, young people may not take their chest pain as seriously, often because they do not believe they could be experiencing a heart attack. According to the American Heart Association, the average age of heart attack is 65 for men, and 72 for women.
While heart attacks in young people are more rare, rates are rising. According to a 2018 study published in the journal Circulation, of 28,000 people hospitalized by heart attacks from 1995 to 2014, 30% were between the ages of 35 and 54.
In addition, your chest pain is more likely to indicate angina if you’re a man above the age of 45, or if you are a woman above the age of 55. While it’s still possible to have serious chest pain when you’re younger, ageing increases the risk that chest pain is the sign of coronary artery disease or a heart attack.
Related stories about heart health:
- Angina is chest pain that can indicate heart problems
- How to prevent a heart attack the first time and from happening again
- What is a silent heart attack? How to recognise the warning signs
- How hypertension, heart disease, and stroke are related
- What happens after a heart attack? How to get physical and mental health back on track
- How to lower blood pressure with a heart-healthy diet and exercise
- What is bypass surgery: How it works and the risks
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