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What is Chest Pain?

Chest pain can present as a sharp, stabbing pain or a dull ache accompanied by discomfort in your chest. It is not a disease, but a symptom of an underlying heart problem like coronary heart disease. The degree of chest pain depends on the intensity, duration and person. 

Types of Chest Pain

  • Stable chest pain: It is caused by coronary heart disease. Squeezing or pain in the center of your chest is the main symptom.
  • Unstable chest pain: Acute coronary syndrome leads to unstable chest pain. It occurs without warning and while resting.   
  • Variant chest pain (rare): It is caused by a spasm in the coronary arteries and typically occurs between midnight and early morning when you are at rest.
  • Microvascular chest pain: Spasms within the walls of small arterial blood vessels results in this condition. Symptoms include breath shortness, sleep problems or fatigue. 

Causes of Chest Pain

There are several factors that can cause your chest pain. Apart from heart-related problems (the main contributor), the condition may be caused by disorders associated with:

  • Your lungs
  • Digestive system 
  • Muscles or bones

Shingles (a viral infection that causes painful rashes) and panic attacks may also result in chest pain.

The chest pain caused by heart-related issues can be life-threatening. It occurs when your heart muscle does not receive enough oxygen-rich blood due to blocked arteries. Some of the heart-related conditions causing your chest pain include:

  • Heart attack: Blockage of blood flow to your heart or blood clot
  • Angina: Poor blood flow to your heart due to blockages in blood vessels
  • Pericarditis: An inflammation of the sac that surrounds your heart


Symptoms of your chest pain may vary and depend on the cause of the condition. The major symptoms of chest pain caused by heart disorders include:

  • A feeling of pressure in your chest 
  • Squeezing or tightness in the chest 
  • Burning sensation in the chest
  • Breath shortness and cold sweats
  • Dizziness or weakness and nausea 

Often, the pain may radiate to your back, neck, shoulders and arms, and can get worse with activity. 


You need to see your doctor immediately if you experience chest pain that lasts more than a few moments. The doctor will ask you some questions and your answers are critical for identifying the cause of your chest pain. 

Additionally, any of the following tests may be ordered to confirm your heart is a cause for the chest pain. 

  • Chest X-ray: To examine your heart, blood vessels and lungs
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG): To record your heart’s electrical activity
  • Echocardiogram: To record moving images of the heart
  • MRI: To look for damage to your heart or aorta (the main artery)
  • Stress test: To measure the function of your heart with exertion
  • Angiogram: To spot blockages in specific arteries
  • Computerized tomography (CT scan): To spot blood clots or blockages
  • Blood tests: To measure levels of the enzyme in your heart muscle

Treatment for Chest Pain 

Treatment for chest pain varies and depends on the outcome of the diagnosis (cause, severity, etc.) 

Your doctor has several options to treat your chest pain caused by heart-related disorders. The treatment can be anyone or a combination of the below.

  • Use of medications, clot-busting drugs or blood thinners
  • Cardiac catheterization involving the use of stents to open blocked arteries
  • Surgical repair of arteries (coronary artery bypass grafting or bypass surgery)
  • Angioplasty and stent placement involving the use of balloons and stents
  • Dissection repair to correct an aortic dissection 

Chest pain is a medical emergency and you should call emergency medical services for prompt intervention and treatment.

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  • American College of Physicians
  • Andrews Research & Education Foundation
  • American Board of Internal Medicine
  • JJM Medical College
  • Acuity Benefit consulting