Chest pain refers to pain felt anywhere in the chest area from the level of your shoulders to the bottom of your ribs. It is a common symptom. There are many causes of chest pain. This leaflet only deals with the most common. It can often be difficult to diagnose the exact cause of chest pain without carrying out some tests and investigations.
Is chest pain normal?
Most chest pain is not a sign of anything serious. However, it is important to take chest pain seriously because it can sometimes indicate a serious underlying problem. Any new, severe, or persisting chest pain should be discussed with your doctor. This is particularly important if you are an adult and have a history of heart or lung disease.
If the chest pain is particularly severe, especially if it is radiating to your arms or jaw, you feel sick, feel sweaty or become breathless, you should call 999/112/911 for an emergency ambulance. These can be symptoms of a heart attack.
Causes of chest pain
There are many possible causes of chest pain. Below is a brief overview of some of the more common causes.
Angina is a pain that comes from the heart. It is usually caused by coronary artery disease (narrowing of the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart muscle).
In the early stages, blood supply may be adequate when you are resting. However, when you exercise, your heart muscle needs more blood and oxygen, and if the blood cannot get past the narrowed coronary arteries, your heart responds with pain.
The chest pain caused by angina may feel like an ache, discomfort or tightness across the front of your chest.
Angina pain can also occur with coronary artery spasm or cardiac syndrome X.
During a heart attack (myocardial infarction), a coronary artery or one of its smaller branches is suddenly blocked. This cuts off the blood supply to part of the heart muscle completely.
The most common symptom of a heart attack is severe chest pain at rest. Unless the blockage is quickly removed, this part of the heart muscle is at risk of dying. To find out more about the symptoms and treatments for a heart attack, see the separate leaflet called Heart Attack (Myocardial Infarction).
Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease
This is a general term which describes a range of situations including acid reflux and oesophagitis (inflammation of the lining of the oesophagus, or gullet).
Heartburn - usually a burning in the lower chest and upper abdomen - is the main symptom of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease. Severe chest pain can develop in some cases and can be mistaken for a heart attack. To find out more about the symptoms and treatments, see the separate leaflet called Acid Reflux and Oesophagitis (Heartburn).
The rib cage is a bony structure that protects the lungs. Softer, more flexible cartilage attaches the ribs to the breastbone (sternum) and the sternum to the collar bones (clavicles) at joints. In costochondritis, there is inflammation in one or more of these joints.
Costochondritis causes chest pain, felt at the front of the chest. This is typically a sharp, stabbing chest pain and is worse with movement, exertion and deep breathing.
Strained chest wall muscle
There are various muscles that run around and between the ribs to help the rib cage to move during breathing. These muscles can sometimes be strained and can lead to chest pain in that area.
If a muscle is strained, there has been stretching or tearing of muscle fibres, often because the muscle has been stretched beyond its limits. For example, a strained chest wall muscle may sometimes develop after heavy lifting, stretching, sudden movement or lengthy (prolonged) coughing. The chest pain is usually worse on movement and on breathing in.
Anxiety is quite a common cause of chest pain. In some people, the chest pain can be so severe that it is mistaken for angina. Chest pain due to anxiety and panic attacks is known as Da Costa's syndrome.
Da Costa's syndrome may be more common in people who have recently had relatives or friends diagnosed with heart problems, or in people who themselves have recently had a heart attack. Investigations show that the coronary arteries are normal with no narrowing.
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Less common causes of chest pain
Some of the less common causes of chest pain include the following:
Pleurisy is due to inflammation of the pleura, a thin membrane with two layers - one which lines the inside of the muscle and ribs of the chest wall, the other which surrounds the lungs. It can cause a 'pleuritic' chest pain. This is a sharp, stabbing chest pain, typically made worse by breathing in or by coughing.
Less common but more serious causes of pleuritic pain include pneumonia, or a blood clot in the lung (pulmonary embolism - see below) or a collapsed lung (pneumothorax - see below).
Pulmonary embolism (PE)
A PE occurs when there is a blockage in one of the arteries (blood vessels)in the lungs - usually due to a blood clot (thrombus) which formed in another part of the circulation. A PE usually causes sharp chest pain felt when breathing in (pleuritic chest pain). Other symptoms include coughing up blood (haemoptysis), breathlessness, mild fever and rapid heart rate.
See the separate leaflet called Pulmonary Embolism for more details on this medical emergency.
A pneumothorax is also known as a collapsed lung. It happens when air is trapped between a lung and the chest wall. The air gets there either from the lungs or, following chest wall injury, from outside the body.
A pneumothorax typically causes sudden, sharp, stabbing chest pain on one side. The pain is usually made worse by breathing in and you can become breathless. Usually, the larger the pneumothorax, the more breathless you become.
Pericarditis is inflammation of the sac around the heart (the pericardium). This can cause chest pain which may be mistaken for a heart attack. Pericarditis is usually caused by a viral infection which goes away within a few weeks. For more details see the separate leaflet called Pericarditis.
Aortic dissection is a rare condition when the inner layer of the aorta (the biggest blood vessel in the body) tears. Blood then surges through the tear causing the inner and middle layers of the aorta to separate (dissect). It is a medical emergency requiring urgent treatment. The usual symptoms are sudden, severe chest pain and shortness of breath. See the separate leaflet called Aortic Dissection for more information.
A peptic ulcer is an ulcer on the inside lining of the upper gut caused by stomach acid.
A common symptom of a peptic ulcer is pain in the upper tummy (abdomen) just below the breastbone (sternum). Complications of peptic ulcers, which can be serious, include bleeding from the ulcer, and perforation, where the ulcer goes right through (perforates) the wall of the gut.
Broken rib (rib fracture)
A rib fracture can happen after an injury, for example: a fall, road traffic accident or assault. It can also happen due to severe coughing or straining. The usual symptom is a strong pain around the area of the broken rib, particularly when you cough or breathe in. There might be swelling or bruising at the site of the broken rib. There is more information in the separate leaflet Rib Injuries.
The usual symptoms are pain and a rash over the strip of skin supplied by one nerve, sometimes on the chest wall. The pain often starts before the rash appears.
When to see a doctor for chest pain
Seek medical help immediately if you have chest pain that is in the middle of your chest, is crushing or squeezing and comes with any of the following symptoms:
- Pain that spreads to the neck, jaw, or one or both shoulders or arms.
- Shortness of breath.
- Feeling sick (nausea) or being sick (vomiting).
- Dizziness or light-headedness.
- Fast or irregular pulse.
You should call 999/112/911 for an emergency ambulance.
There are many different causes of chest pain. Some are more serious than others. Any new, severe, or persisting chest pain should be discussed with your doctor. This is particularly important if you are an adult and have a history of heart or lung disease.
Diagnosing chest pain
Your doctor will usually ask you some questions to try to determine the cause of your chest pain. He or she may also examine you. Based on what they find, he or she may advise you to have some investigations, depending on what cause for your chest pain they suspect. Investigations for chest pain can include:
An ECG (electrocardiogram or 'heart tracing')
There are often typical changes to the normal pattern of the 'heart tracing' (electrocardiogram, or ECG) in a heart attack.
A blood test that measures a chemical called troponin is the usual test that confirms a heart attack. Damage to heart muscle cells releases troponin into the bloodstream. Another blood test that may be suggested is a D-dimer test. This detects fragments of breakdown products of a blood clot. A positive D-dimer test may raise the suspicion of a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or a PE.
A chest X-ray can look for pneumonia, collapsed lung (pneumothorax) and other chest conditions.
Other scans and imaging
- Myocardial perfusion scan - often done to confirm the diagnosis of heart chest pain (angina).
- Cardiac magnetic resonance imaging - also to confirm heart chest pain, this is a type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.
- CT coronary angiogram - a quicker alternative to an MRI scan, in which a CT scan is used to look in detail at your coronary arteries.
- Coronary angiography - this test uses specialist X-ray equipment and dye injected into the coronary arteries to show the location and severity of any narrowing of the arteries.
- Isotope scan and CTPA scan look at the circulation in the lung. CTPA stands for 'computerised tomography pulmonary angiogram'. They can show quite accurately whether or not a PE is present.
- Endoscopy - which uses a thin, flexible telescope passed down your gullet (oesophagus) to examine your stomach lining. This may be recommended if your team thinks your chest pain could be caused by gastro-oesophageal reflux disease or a peptic ulcer.
Chest pain treatment
This will depend on the cause that is found for your chest pain. Follow the links above to the separate leaflets for more information about the treatment for the different causes.
If the problem is not an emergency, your doctor may refer you to a consultant for further specialist investigations, as described above.
Preventing chest pain
Preventing chest pain depends on the cause. Your doctor will be able to recommend the best treatment to prevent your chest pain from recurring.