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Chest Pain: A Danger Sign to Take Seriously

March 13, 2015 (Updated: February 5, 2019)
Lily Moran

Chest pain is serious and should never be taken lightly. Naturally, most people associate this symptom with a heart attack, but there are many other little-known causes—some harmless, others life threatening. Either way, you need to get a proper diagnosis. As you’re about to find out, it’s truly a matter of life or death…

Monica had been to seven other doctors before going to an integrative specialist. She suffered with relentless chest pain for months. The internists and cardiologists she saw told her she didn’t have coronary heart disease, nor did she experience heart attack. All those exams, and not one doctor thought to look beyond the obvious—her heart—to get to the real root of the problem. It turns out she had lung cancer.

And before Stephen made an appointment with an integrative specialist, he went to his previous doctor complaining of minor chest pain. He left that appointment with a heartburn diagnosis and some samples of prescription-strength antacids. After the integrative specialist performed several tests, it turned out he had actually suffered a minor heart attack!

The moral here is that pain—but especially chest pain—should be considered serious until proven otherwise. Here’s a rundown of the major heart- and non-heart-related causes of chest pain and what you should do about them.

The Many Causes of Chest Pain

When doctors suspect coronary artery disease or hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), but no heart attack occurred, they will often tell patients they have a condition called stable angina. Decreased blood flow and oxygen to the heart will lead to symptoms such as pain, squeezing, pressure, or tightness in the center of the chest. Most notably, these symptoms occur immediately after physical exertion or exercise. Attacks come to an end within five minutes—especially with rest.

(Unstable angina, on the other hand, could mean a heart attack is imminent. This type of pain starts suddenly, often in the absence of exertion, and does not go away quickly. Seek emergency help if this happens to you.)

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If you have recurrent attacks of stable angina, you need to address the source—blockages in the arteries. Get serious about your diet and exercise, and if you smoke, stop right away. Taking some key heart-friendly nutrients can also help. The best include omega-3 fatty acids, coenzyme Q10, magnesium, and L-carnitine.

Non-heart-related causes of chest pain are numerous and varied. In some cases it could be as simple as a pulled muscle. But it could also indicate inflammation of the lining of the lungs or chest, pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, pulmonary hypertension, GERD, ulcers, pancreas or gallbladder problems, panic attacks, and even some forms of cancer.

As you can see, while some of these concerns are less life threatening than others, none are insignificant.

Be Your Own Advocate

When it comes to the heart, many cardiologists will rely on electrocardiograms (ECG), echocardiograms, catheterization, CT scans, or MRI. These often, but not always, diagnosis the problem. If you feel you deserve a more thorough examination, ask for it or find a new physician who has access to more sophisticated tests such as electron beam computerized tomography (EBCT).

If your doctors are 100 percent sure your chest pain is not heart related, be sure you get to the bottom of the issue. Don’t assume that because your heart is ok, that the pain means nothing. If your physician blows it off or can’t find a cause, find a new doctor who won’t give up until they find an answer.

Bottom line: You know better than any doctor what does and doesn’t feel normal. Trust your instincts. There’s no better advocate for your health than you.

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