Chest Tightness

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What is chest tightness?

Chest tightness includes any type of pain or discomfort that occurs between your upper belly area and your lower neck. Chest tightness can occur in any age group or population and may also be described as chest pain, chest pressure, or a feeling of burning or fullness in the chest.

Chest tightness can be a serious, life-threatening symptom and is one typical symptom of a heart attack and other types of heart and cardiovascular diseases. Chest tightness can also be due to a wide variety of other diseases, disorders and conditions. For example, chest tightness can result from a relatively mild to moderate condition that is relatively easy to treat, such as drinking too much coffee, occasional indigestion, hyperventilation, or an anxiety attack.

Chest tightness can also be a symptom of a condition of the gastrointestinal tract, such as acid reflux and GERD. Serious respiratory conditions that can lead to a feeling of chest tightness or pain include pneumothorax, acute bronchitis, bronchiolitis, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pulmonary embolism, and pulmonary edema. In children, chest tightness is usually not caused by a heart attack and is more commonly caused by such conditions as asthma or costochondritis due to inflammation of the joints in the ribcage.

Depending on the cause, chest tightness can develop suddenly and disappear quickly, such as during hyperventilation or when breathing in very cold air. An intense feeling of tightness in the chest that occurs in a sudden, severe episode may be due to a heart attack or pulmonary embolism. Chronic and ongoing chest tightness may be due to COPD or lung cancer.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have unexplained chest tightness or a crushing feeling in your chest; if the pain is radiating to your shoulder blades, jaw, or left arm; or if you have shortness of breath, sweating, or chest tightness at rest. In addition, sudden chest tightness with shortness of breath after a long period of inactivity, such as prolonged bed rest, may be a sign of a pulmonary embolism and is a life-threatening emergency.

What other symptoms might occur with chest tightness?

Chest tightness often occurs in conjunction with other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. For example, if chest tightness is related to an infection, you may have a fever and body aches. Pain can travel from the neck, back, and belly area to your chest.

Coexisting symptoms can also be related to the organs and tissues in your chest or abdomen, such as the lungs, stomach, esophagus, ribs, pancreas, gallbladder, muscles and nerves. Some signs or symptoms may only be evident through medical testing, such as low oxygen levels and high carbon dioxide levels, so always seek medical care if you have chest tightness.

Respiratory symptoms that may occur along with chest tightness

Chest tightness may accompany other heart and lung symptoms including:

  • Cough (may be a productive cough with phlegm)

  • Flared nostrils

  • Wheezing

Digestive symptoms that may occur along with chest tightness

Chest tightness can accompany symptoms related to the digestive system including:

Other symptoms that may occur along with chest tightness

Other symptoms that may accompany chest tightness include:

  • Anxiety and feelings of panic or fear

  • Racing thoughts

  • Stress

  • Sweating palms

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

Chest tightness may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. You should seek immediate medical care (call 911) for chest tightness, which may or may not occur with other symptoms including:

  • Change in level of consciousness or passing out

  • Chest tightness, pain or discomfort that spreads to the left arm, jaw, shoulder or back

  • Chest tightness, pain or discomfort when breathing or coughing

  • Cold, clammy skin or cyanosis, a bluish color of the skin, lips or nails

  • Coughing up yellow-green phlegm (mucus) with shortness of breath or wheezing

  • Difficulty breathing, labored breathing (dyspnea), or rapid breathing (tachypnea)

  • Pressure, cramping or tearing sensation in the chest

  • Severe dizziness or disorientation

  • Severe heart palpitations or a fluttering feeling in the chest

  • Sudden chest tightness with shortness of breath

  • Sweating

What causes chest tightness?

Chest tightness is caused by a variety of mild to serious disorders, diseases and conditions. Chest tightness can result from infection, infarction, inflammation, trauma, malignancy, and other abnormal processes. While some cases of chest tightness are due to problems with the heart, chest tightness can also be due to respiratory diseases, problems with digestion, anxiety disorders, or a pulled muscle or tendon. In children, chest tightness is usually not caused by a heart attack but may be caused by asthma or inflammation of the joints in the ribcage.

Life-threatening cardiovascular causes of chest tightness

Chest tightness can arise from problems with the structures surrounding the heart and the heart itself including:

Serious or life-threatening lung-related causes of chest tightness

Chest tightness can also be caused by serious problems with the respiratory system including:

Digestive system-related causes of chest tightness

Chest tightness can arise from gastrointestinal problems including:

Other causes of chest tightness

Other causes of chest tightness include psychological and inflammatory conditions:

  • Anxiety attack

  • Chest injury or trauma, such as rib fracture or a bruised chest

  • Costochondritis (inflammation of the joints of the ribcage)

  • Pulled chest wall muscle (muscle strain)

  • Shingles

What are the potential complications of chest tightness?

The complications of untreated or poorly controlled chest tightness vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Any kind of chest tightness, whether it occurs alone or is accompanied by other symptoms, should be evaluated by your doctor or health care provider. Following the treatment plan you and your health care provider develop specifically for you will minimize the risk of complications of serious or life-threatening underlying causes of chest tightness including:

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 2
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  3. Heart Disease, Conditions. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/signs_symptoms.htm
  4. Non-cardiac Chest Pain. American College of Gastroenterology. http://patients.gi.org/topics/non-cardiac-chest-pain/