When to See a Doctor for Chest Pain

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Man with hand on his chest, seeing doctor
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Chest pain is a troubling symptom with many possible causes. Sometimes chest pain signals an emergency like a heart attack (myocardial infarction), an urgent issue like heart disease. Other times it can be a sign of something relatively such as heartburn.

With chest pain, it is better to be safe than sorry. Follow these guidelines for seeking medical treatment for chest pain.

Signs you should seek emergency care

Call 911 immediately if you experience a sharp pain or a crushing or squeezing sensation in your chest, and you have any of these additional symptoms of a heart attack:

  • fast or irregular pulse
  • pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, arms, shoulders or back
  • weakness, dizziness or light-headedness
  • shortness of breath
  • cold sweats
  • nausea or vomiting

Sudden chest pain with shortness of breath after an extended period of inactivity, such as prolonged bed rest or a long airline flight, may also be a sign of a pulmonary embolism and is a life-threatening emergency.

Signs you should seek routine care

Most chest pain is not indicative of a heart attack. Your primary care physician can typically address chest pain if:

  • You can pinpoint the pain to a specific spot in your chest.
  • The pain reduces or goes away when you take digestive remedies (such as antacids).
  • The pain only lasts a few seconds.
  • The pain increases when you take a deep breath or it goes away or reduces when you pause your breathing.
  • You feel the pain when you move, or if you press on a specific part of your chest, neck or shoulder.

Chest pain treatment at home

For chest pain caused by digestive issues, you can use over-the-counter and prescription antacids and digestive aids to treat the pain.

For all other chest pain, it is not possible to accurately identify the precise cause at home and you should see your primary care physician for a diagnosis and treatment plan.

Common causes of chest pain

Beyond heart attack, chest pain can be caused by heart and lung issues, but may also be caused by problems in your throat, muscles, ribs or nerves. The only way to confirm the cause of your chest pain is to see your primary care physician.

Heart-related causes of chest pain

Here are some common heart problems that can cause chest pain, often on the left side of the chest:

  • Coronary artery disease (CAD): CAD blocks blood vessels in the heart, reducing the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart muscle. This may feel like pressure or squeezing and you might also feel it in your arm, shoulder, jaw or back.
  • Myocarditis: This inflammation of heart muscles causes pain and possibly fever, fatigue, rapid heartbeat, and shortness of breath. Pain from myocarditis can closely resemble that of a heart attack. This pain can be sharp and steady along the upper neck and shoulder muscle. It sometimes increases when you breathe, swallow food, or lie on your back.
  • Pericarditis: This condition occurs when the sac around the heart is inflamed or infected. This often causes a sharp, steady pain along the upper neck and shoulder and can feel like a pulled muscle.
  • Mitral valve prolapse: A rarer condition than those listed above, in which one of the heart valves does not close properly. This can cause chest pain, palpitations and dizziness, but mild cases can have no symptoms.

Lung-related causes of chest pain

Additionally, lung problems can cause chest pain. If you have chest pain on the right side, it could be a lung issue. Here are some lung problems that can cause chest pain:

  • Pleuritis: This is an inflammation or irritation of the lining of the lungs and chest, causing a sharp chest pain when you breathe, cough or sneeze.
  • Pneumonia: This infection of the lungs can cause pleuritis and other types of chest pain, such as a deep chest ache.
  • Pulmonary embolism: This potentially fatal condition is caused by a blood clot that travels through the bloodstream and lodges in the lungs. Along with chest pain, this can cause trouble breathing and a rapid heartbeat. Call 911 right away if you experience these symptoms.
  • Asthma: This inflammation of the airways causes shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing and sometimes chest pain.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): COPD is an umbrella term for chronic lung diseases, such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema, that can make breathing difficult.
  • Lung cancer: While lung cancer often has no symptoms in its early stages, telltale signs can include persistent coughing and pain in the chest or back that’s unrelated to pain from coughing.

Who to see for chest pain

Talk to your primary care physician first about any non-emergency chest pain. He or she can assess your symptoms and may refer you to a specialist for further treatment. These doctors can include:

  • cardiologists
  • interventional cardiologists
  • electrophysiologists
  • cardiac and vascular surgeons
  • pulmonologists
  • oncologists
  • thoracic surgeons

You can help reach a more accurate diagnosis by explaining your chest pain to your doctor in as much detail as possible, along with any other changes to your health. The more your doctor knows about your chest pain, the easier and more precisely he or she can determine its cause and find effective treatment.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 17
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