8 Chest Pains You Might Mistake for a Heart Attack
Chest pains can be scary—and you should call 911 if you think you're having a heart attack—but there are many other potential causes of chest pain besides heart trouble.
Severe heartburn may cause you to panic, wondering, “Am I having a heart attack?!” If you have any doubt, call 911. If, however, you aren’t at risk for a heart attack, and you have reason to believe the pain you’re experiencing is from acid in your esophagus, try taking an antacid. This should soothe the burning pain of indigestion. (Here are more home remedies for heartburn.)
Another possible cause of chest pain is shingles, says Kristine Arthur, MD, an internist with MemorialCare Medical Group in Fountain Valley, California. Shingles, which are a resurgence of the chicken pox virus in the body, can cause severe pain that radiates around one side of the rib cage. Usually there is a significant rash, too. However, in some cases, it’s so small you may not see it. “You should suspect shingles if the pain follows the line of a rib and if there are any type of skin changes along the area that hurt,” says Dr. Arthur. “It is almost always only on one side.” (These are the shingles symptoms you could be ignoring.)
Typically, pancreatitis–inflammation of the pancreas, a long flat gland behind the stomach–causes abdominal pain, but the pain can radiate into the chest, causing you to think it’s heart-related. You’ll need a medical workup to determine the cause of the pain, as blood work and medical imaging can help your doctor make the proper diagnosis. (Learn to spot the silent signs of pancreatic cancer.)
Tightening of the chest, heart palpitations, sweaty palms, lightheadedness—these are all symptoms of a heart attack. They’re also symptoms of a panic attack. If you experience panic disorders, ask your doctor to evaluate your heart health, so that the next time a panic attack occurs, you’ll know what to do. If you have any doubt during such an attack, go to the ER. (This is the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack.)
Another possible cause of chest pain: costochondritis, inflammation of the cartilage that connects ribs to your breastbone. “The pain can be very sharp and hurt if you take a deep breath,” says Dr. Arthur. “Although it can be present on both sides, it is usually worse on one side.”A good way to tell if your chest pain may be costochondritis: lift your arms above your head and see if the pain improves. During a heart attack, you will be in pain regardless of motion.
Chronic pain syndromes, such as fibromyalgia, can cause the kind of muscle-related chest pain that’s easy to mistake for a heart attack. Symptoms vary, but many people report intense, sharp, or stabbing pain in the chest and ribcage. When fibromyalgia causes inflammation of the cartilage that joins the upper ribs to the breastbone, it results in costochondritis.
Lung issues, such as pneumonia, may also mimic heart attack symptoms. The fluid build up in your lungs’ air sacs “can cause chest pain and pressure, which causes people to think [they’re having a] heart attack,” says Nicole Weinberg, MD, a cardiologist at Pacific Heart Institute in Santa Monica, California. Dr. Weinberg recommends seeking medical attention from a cardiologist first and foremost; having a workup of the heart can be helpful in addressing lung issues, as well.
Because pain can radiate from the stomach to the chest, the pain of stomach ulcers may manifest as chest pain. “Anything from the mouth down to the stomach can be the cause of chest pains,” Dr. Weinberg says. You’ll need to be evaluated by your physician to determine whether or not your chest pains are from ulcers, but if you have a history of stomach ulcers, this is a likely cause.
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