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Other conditions may be causes of chest pain
Heart disease not the only reason for that feeling of angina
Although chest pain is often—and rightfully— associated with heart disease, other medical problems can be causes of chest pain. Angina—feelings of pressure, heaviness, tightness. or pain in the chest—occurs when plaque in the coronary arteries partially blocks blood flow and the heart muscle isn't getting enough oxygen and nutrients. (You can learn more about angina in the Harvard Special Health Report Diseases of the Heart: A compendium of common heart condition and the latest treatments.) Yet the heart isn't the only organ in the upper abdomen, and chest pain may be due to conditions affecting the esophagus, lungs, gall bladder, or stomach.
Digestive causes of chest pain
When chest pain—particularly pain in the lower chest— is triggered by a meal, it is likely to emanate from the digestive system, rather than from the heart, and can be due to the following:
Acid reflux or heartburn. When acid from the stomach flows up into the esophagus, it can cause a burning sensation in the chest reminiscent of a feeling of angina or often mistaken for a heart attack.
Esophageal spasm. Sudden, forceful contractions of the esophagus, the muscular tube between the mouth and the stomach, can be painful. These spasms can also trap food in the esophagus and prevent it from passing into the stomach.
Gallbladder disease. A sudden pain that often occurs 30 minutes after you have eaten may be a sign of gallstones. Gallbladder pain is usually felt just below the breastbone and may extend to the right arm or between the shoulder blades. It occurs as the gallbladder contracts in an effort to pump bile around the gallstones that are blocking its passage to the liver.
Inflammatory causes of chest pain
Tissues in the chest cavity can become inflamed due to injury, infection, or autoimmune conditions, in which the body's immune cells attack its own tissues. Common inflammatory causes of chest pain include the following:
Costochondritis. This condition, an inflammation in the chest wall between the ribs and the breastbone, can trigger a stabbing, aching pain that's often mistaken for a heart attack. Costochondritis is commonly caused by trauma or overuse injuries, often during contact sports, or it may accompany arthritis.
Pericarditis is an inflammation of the pericardium, a protective, double-layered sac surrounding the heart. It has many different possible causes, including a virus or other infection, certain illnesses, an injury to the chest, radiation therapy for cancer, or a reaction to medications. The classic symptom of pericarditis is a sharp, stabbing pain in the center or left side of the chest that worsens when you take a deep breath or lie down. The pain results from the irritated layers of the sac rubbing together.
Lung-related causes of chest pain
The following lung conditions often produce chest pain that may feel like angina.
Pneumonia can cause shortness of breath and sharp pains that intensify with a deep breath. Unlike angina, it is likely to be accompanied by other symptoms, like fever, chills, or coughing.
Pulmonary embolism—a blood clot that has traveled into the vessels supplying the lungs—can cause chest pain. The pain is often accompanied by a fast or irregular heartbeat, sudden difficulty breathing, or feeling lightheaded or faint. Pulmonary embolisms can be life-threatening, so the symptoms warrant a call to 911.
Psychological causes of chest pain
Both anxiety and panic attack can cause symptoms very similar to angina. These attacks—which can occur out of the blue or in response to a stressful event—include chest pain along with shortness of breath, palpitations, and dizziness. The key difference is that the chest pain is usually fleeting, lasting only a moment or two.
What to do when you're uncertain
Any time you're uncertain about the source of chest pain that is recurrent or lasts for several days, you should talk to your clinician. However, if you have chest pain that is building in intensity, has lasted for several minutes, and isn't relieved by resting, you should get immediate medical attention.
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.