Chest Tightness: What to Do and What It Could Mean
Read on to learn about when to seek emergency medical attention for chest tightness, what could be causing the feeling, and how doctors diagnose and treat the sensation.
Seek immediate medical care by calling 911 if you or someone you are with experiences:
- unexplained chest tightness or a crushing feeling in the chest
- pain that radiates to the shoulder blades, jaw, or left arm
- shortness of breath, sweating, or chest tightness while at rest
Sudden chest tightness with shortness of breath after a long period of inactivity, such as prolonged bed rest, may be a symptom of a pulmonary embolism. This is a life threatening emergency.
You should seek immediate medical attention if you have chest pain or pressure alongside any of the following symptoms:
- difficulty breathing
- an inability to wake up or stay awake
- skin, lips, or nail beds that appear pale, gray, or blue
Chest tightness can be a serious, life threatening symptom. In fact, it is a typical symptom of heart attacks and other types of heart and cardiovascular diseases.
However, chest tightness can also be due to a wide variety of other conditions. For example, it can also result from a relatively mild to moderate condition that is fairly easy to treat, such as occasional indigestion, hyperventilation, or an anxiety attack.
Life threatening cardiovascular causes of chest tightness
Chest tightness can arise from problems with the structures surrounding the heart and the heart itself, including:
- Cardiac arrhythmias: These are irregular heart rhythms.
- Congenital cardiac anomalies or disorders: Examples include coarctation of the aorta and aortic valve stenosis.
- Congestive heart failure: With this condition, the heart cannot pump blood efficiently around the body.
- Coronary artery disease: This type of heart disease includes coronary artery spasm and angina due to atherosclerosis, which is the hardening and narrowing of the arteries.
- Endocarditis: This involves inflammation or infection of the inner lining of the heart.
- Heart valve problems: One such example is mitral valve insufficiency.
- Pericarditis: This refers to inflammation or infection of the tissue sac that covers the heart.
Serious or life threatening lung-related causes of chest tightness
Chest tightness can also result from serious problems with the respiratory system, including:
- pleurisy, which refers to inflammation of the lung lining
- pneumothorax, or a collapsed lung
- hemothorax, or blood around the lung
- pulmonary edema
- pulmonary embolism
- pulmonary hypertension
Digestive system-related causes of chest tightness
Chest tightness can arise from several gastrointestinal problems, including:
- achalasia, which is a disorder of the esophagus
- Barrett’s esophagus, which refers to abnormal esophageal lining caused by stomach acid
- esophageal spasm
- gallbladder conditions, such as cholecystitis and gallstones
- gastroesophageal reflux disease
- hiatal hernia, which refers to the abnormal movement of the stomach into the chest
- pancreatitis and other pancreas conditions
- peptic ulcer
Other causes of chest tightness
Other causes of chest tightness include psychological and inflammatory conditions, such as:
- anxiety attacks
- a chest injury or trauma to the area, such as a rib fracture or bruised chest
- costochondritis, which refers to inflammation of the joints of the ribcage
- a pulled chest wall muscle
A doctor may begin the diagnostic process by asking you some questions about your chest tightness. These questions may include:
- How long have you been experiencing this chest tightness?
- On a scale of 1 (mild) to 10 (critical), how much does the chest tightness hurt?
- Have you noticed anything in particular that brings the tightness on, such as physical activity or eating?
- What have you found can improve the chest tightness, if anything?
They may also order several tests to take a better look at what could be causing the chest tightness. Such tests can include:
- chest X-rays
- blood tests
- an electrocardiogram
- a stress test
- coronary angiography
- cardiac catheterization
- CT angiography
There are several medical and at-home treatment options for chest tightness. However, it is very important that you contact a doctor if you notice chest tightness. This will allow you to identify what is causing the feeling and start the appropriate treatment.
Treating a medical condition that is causing feelings of chest tightness will depend on what the condition is. Your doctor will be able to advise on treatment once they have carried out diagnostic tests.
Medical treatment for chest tightness may involve:
- surgical procedures that can open blocked arteries
- medications that can help keep the arteries open
- medications that can treat other medical conditions, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes
- antacids and other medications that can relieve acid reflux, if that is the cause
- antianxiety medications
- antibiotics, if the chest tightness is happening due to a bacterial lung infection
Home remedies for chest tightness will depend on what is causing the condition. It is vital that you contact a doctor if you are experiencing chest tightness. They can recommend certain lifestyle changes that might help ease the pain and discomfort.
Home remedies for chest tightness may include:
- Making diet and lifestyle changes: Some conditions and risk factors for chest tightness happen because of certain diet and lifestyle factors. Following a heart-healthy diet can help reduce feelings of chest tightness by addressing these causes.
- Finding methods to manage anxiety: Using tools to help manage stress, such as meditation or mindfulness, may help ease chest tightness that is due to muscle tension or anxiety.
- Avoiding smoking: Staying away from tobacco products can help ease symptoms of acid reflux and help you breathe more easily.
- Elevating the head of your bed: If you are experiencing chest tightness due to acid reflux, you may find that raising the head of your bed several inches can help ease feelings of discomfort.
The complications of untreated chest tightness vary depending on the underlying condition. Any kind of chest tightness, whether it occurs alone or alongside other symptoms, needs to be evaluated by a doctor.
Following the treatment plan that you and your doctor develop specifically for you will minimize your risk of serious complications, including:
- cardiac arrest
- cardiac arrhythmias
- high carbon dioxide levels and acidosis
- low oxygen levels
- respiratory failure and respiratory arrest
Chest tightness can feel like squeezing pain or discomfort in the chest. It can be a symptom of a serious medical condition that warrants emergency medical attention, such as a heart attack or COVID-19. It can also indicate a less immediately serious condition that still requires treatment, such as acid reflux.
Therefore, it is very important that you contact a doctor if you experience chest tightness. They will be able to identify what is causing the tightness and recommend the best course of treatment.