Chest pain appears in many ways. You may experience a sharp pain, dull ache, or pain spreading into your neck, arms, and upper back. The pain can come on suddenly or gradually, disappear quickly or persist.
So how can you tell if chest pain is serious? Sometimes you can’t. But there are a few signs telling you when chest pain is deadly serious and needs emergency attention.
When you can’t decide whether you need medical care, the answer is simple: You should protect your health and prevent life-threatening consequences by having your heart evaluated by Laura Fernandes, MD, FACC, at Woodlands Heart and Vascular Institute.
Chest pain always demands attention because it’s the primary symptom of cardiovascular disease and heart attacks. Even if your pain arises from a non-cardiac cause, you should rule out heart disease first.
Five signs your chest pain is serious
There are five warning signs that your chest pain is likely due to a heart attack. If you experience any of them, call 911 right away.
Don’t drive yourself to the hospital because you could lose consciousness while driving. With an ambulance, the emergency medical technicians can begin life-saving treatment immediately.
1. Sudden severe pain or a crushing sensation
Chest pain that hits suddenly and quickly gets worse is the classic sign of a heart attack. You could experience an intense crushing sensation instead of pain. Patients describe it as feeling like a very heavy weight is pressing their chest.
2. Gradually building pain
You may be surprised to learn that a heart attack doesn’t always cause sudden, severe pain. Your chest pain could seem minor at first and gradually build into more severe pain.
Chest pain that lasts longer than a few minutes should be taken seriously. In addition to persistent pain, gradual chest pain is more likely to signal a heart attack if it occurs together with other symptoms.
3. Chest pain with other symptoms
Heart attacks commonly cause chest pain together with other symptoms, including:
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweats
Fainting or losing consciousness is also a telltale sign that your chest pain is caused by a heart attack. The risk of losing consciousness during a heart attack highlights the importance of calling 911 right away or quickly alerting another person that you need help.
4. Radiating pain
Heart attack pain typically occurs in the center of your chest, and then it may radiate to your neck, jaw, arm, shoulders, or upper back.
5. Pain that doesn’t improve
Heart attack pain doesn’t improve over time. By comparison, chest pain arising from other causes may improve if you rest, change your body position, or self-medicate with an antacid or pain reliever. Even if you have a sharp, intense chest pain, it’s not likely to be a heart attack if it feels better in a few minutes.
Signs you need a heart evaluation
Two worrisome signs are red flags warning of a heart condition:
Chest pain begins when exercising
Chest pain that begins when you exercise or increase your activity, and feels better if you rest, is the symptom of a blocked heart artery (coronary artery disease). Without treatment, the plaque clogging the artery will enlarge, limiting the heart’s blood supply.
Don’t wait to schedule an evaluation — coronary artery disease is the top cause of heart attacks.
Chest pain keeps returning
You may have a reason for recurrent chest pain. For example, you may have asthma (or another chronic lung disease), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or recently suffered a chest injury.
If you haven’t been diagnosed with a condition explaining your chest pain and it keeps coming and going, you need to schedule a heart evaluation.
You can depend on exceptional heart care at Woodlands Heart and Vascular Institute. Don’t wait to call or connect online if you have questions about chest pain or need to schedule an appointment.