Get emergency assistance immediately if you feel chest pain (even if you suspect indigestion or believe you are too young to experience a heart attack). Seeking treatment right away increases your chance of protecting the heart muscle against damage.
While you may think chest pain is a sure sign of a heart problem or write it off as indigestion, there is a wide range of possible causes.
It may feel like pressure or squeezing in your chest. It can be persistent or come and go depending on your activity level or position. Sometimes chest pain also radiates to other areas like the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back.
Sources of chest pain may be conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels (cardiovascular system), respiratory system (pulmonary), gastrointestinal system, or musculoskeletal system. At times it can be psychological in nature. Here are some potential health issues to keep in mind as you try to determine why you're in pain.
Don't delay getting care if you have any new or severe chest pain. Contact your doctor or call 911 and go to the emergency room. Healthcare professionals will be able to perform the examinations and tests needed to diagnose the cause and get you the appropriate treatment.
Cardiovascular disease is a broad term describing conditions involving the heart and blood vessels. In the United States, approximately 1 out of every 4 deaths is attributed to heart disease, making it the leading cause of mortality by a landslide.1 Some primary cardiovascular conditions that produce chest pain are as follows:
Coronary Artery Disease
Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common type of heart disease in the United States.2 Your coronary artery supplies blood, oxygen, and nutrients to your heart. With CAD, plaque accumulates along the arterial wall.
This plaque is made up of cholesterol deposits. Over time, plaques cause the arteries to narrow, causing a partial or total blockage of blood flow.
Coronary Artery Dissection
A coronary artery dissection is a result of a spontaneous tearing in the coronary artery wall. This tear occurs when blood gets trapped in one of the arterial wall layers, causing it to bulge inward. Coronary artery dissections can cause a heart attack because blood cannot reach the heart, but fortunately, this condition is uncommon.3
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) affects the heart tissue directly, causing the heart muscle to become abnormally thick and making it harder to pump blood.4
HCM often goes undiagnosed because many people have minimal symptoms. However, in a small number of people, HCM can cause shortness of breath, chest pain, or abnormal heart rhythms resulting in sudden death.
Mitral Valve Prolapse
In mitral valve prolapse (MVP), the two valve flaps of the mitral valve in the heart don't close smoothly or evenly and bulge or prolapse upward into the left atrium. Since mitral valve prolapse is not typically a dangerous condition, most people don't require treatment.5
The technical term for a heart attack is a myocardial infarction. Heart attacks happen when there's a blockage or slowdown of blood flow to the heart, usually from plaque build-up in the arteries (atherosclerosis).6
A common cause is a ruptured plaque leading to the formation of a clot that blocks blood flow. This damages or destroys the heart muscle.