Surprising Causes of Chest Pain

Panic Attack

This can feel like a heart attack. Besides chest pain, you may be short of breath, feel your heart race, or go numb in your hands or feet. Some people feel dizzy or worry that they’re about to die. A stressful event can bring it on, or it could come out of the blue. Panic attacks can be hard to manage on your own. They can get worse if you don’t get help with them.


If you have chest pain along with a painful rash and blisters on your chest or back, you could have this illness, which is caused by the chickenpox virus. If the nerves of your chest wall are affected, the pain there can be severe. Shingles can clear up on its own, but your doctor can give you medicine to help with your symptoms or make it go away faster.


Underneath your lungs, there’s a small area where your stomach and esophagus (your food pipe) meet. Coughing, heavy lifting, or straining during bowel movements can put pressure on this area. If there’s too much pressure, part of your stomach can get pushed into the opening. That’s called a hiatal hernia. Chest pain is a symptom, and so is stomach or esophagus pain, bloating, belching, and a sour taste in back of your throat. Most hernias don’t need treatment, but some people eventually need surgery.


These are hardened bits of digestive fluid in your gallbladder. They can be as small as a grain of sand or as big as a golf ball. If one blocks the way between your gallbladder and bile ducts (which carry waste from your body), you can get a sudden pain in your stomach that you also feel in your chest, back, or right shoulder. This is most likely to happen at night after a heavy meal.


If acids from your stomach go up into your esophagus, you can feel pain not only in your chest, but in your jaw and throat as well. Alcohol, smoking, aspirin and other noninflammatory drugs, and citrus fruit can all be triggers. So can eating too close to bedtime. Call your doctor if you burp and don’t feel better, or you have other symptoms like nausea or sweating. 

Muscle Pain

Being more active or exercising harder than normal can strain the muscles in your chest wall. You may notice that your pain is worse when you’re sitting or standing a certain way. Taking a deep breath or pressing on the sore area might hurt. Scale back your workout and don’t lift heavy things until the pain gets better. A heating pad or ice pack on the area can help. Esophageal spasms are a common cause of chest pain, so be aware of your symptoms.


This rather rare sexually transmitted disease  (STD) can cause problems with your lungs. Symptoms include a skin rash, fatigue, headache, and muscle pain. In some people, it also causes extra fliud to build up around your lungs. This can cause sharp chest pain and a cough with mucus. Antibiotics will help clear it up.


Chest tightness is a symptom of this, along with coughing, wheezing, and struggling to catch your breath. It can be triggered by many different things, from dust and pet hair to certain things in food or physical activity. Medication can help keep your airways open and help when symptoms flare up.

Pulmonary Embolism

This is when a blood clot forms somewhere in your body, then works its way into your lungs. It keeps your lungs from getting enough blood. Your chest may hurt when you breathe deeply, cough, eat, or bend over. You may notice that the pain gets worse when you’re active and doesn’t get better when you stop. If this happens, get medical help right away. Medicine can keep the clot from getting bigger and prevent more from forming.


If your body doesn’t send enough blood to your heart, you’ll feel a squeezing pressure in your chest. That’s called angina. Some people also feel pain in their shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, and back. It can be triggered by stress, heavy meals, or exercise. Or it could be a sign of another heart problem. You’re more likely to have it if your cholesterol or blood pressure is high, you have diabetes, or you don’t exercise or eat healthy food.


If taking a deep breath, coughing, or sneezing brings on chest pain, the lining of your lungs may be inflamed. Called pleurisy, this can be caused by a virus, bacterial infection, or certain drugs you take. Lots of fluids and over-the-counter ibuprofen, like Advil or Motrin, can help. But if you also have a fever or your pain lasts more than a few days, check in with your doctor.

Heart Attack

Chest pain is the most common heart attack symptom. If you feel crushing pressure that lasts more than a few minutes, nausea, severe shortness of breath, or a  squeezing pain in your chest or left upper arm, call 911. Women who are having a heart attack may have more subtle symptoms. Along with chest pain, you may feel tired, have back or jaw pain, or feel dizzy.  These are all signs that you need an ambulance right away.

Source: Review by Suzanne R. Steinbaum, MD on February 24, 2020

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