What is Chest Pain?
Chest pain is one of the top reasons why people visit the emergency room since it could indicate a heart attack. And since cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the US and can cause angina, strokes, arrhythmia, heart attacks, etc., it is important for patients to address any chest pain as soon as possible.
However, chest pain isn’t always indicative of a life-threatening problem. For instance, some chest pain is referred pain, or discomfort that is felt in another area of the body than the actual location. If someone receives trauma to nerves or fractures/bruises a rib, he or she may feel chest pain. Chest pain could also be related to illnesses like pneumonia or shingles.
The causes of chest pain can often be mitigated with some lifestyle changes. For instance high stress levels, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, untreated diabetes, and smoking can all increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Some heart conditions, however, are more likely if a patient has a family history of it.
If a person has chest pain and no previous diagnosis to its origin, then he or she should go the emergency room right away for diagnosis. Since chest pain can have many causes, it is important to see the doctor for x-rays, blood tests, CT scans, and the like. These tests will indicate whether or not the chest pain is a referred pain in the back, esophagus, diaphragm, etc., or if the pain is related to the heart.
What are the Symptoms of Chest Pain?
Chest pain can radiate from the neck down to the upper abdomen. The pain can feel like heartburn, a dull ache, a sharp stabbing, or a constricting sensation. This chest pain can be indicative of heart conditions like angina, coronary artery disease (CAD), pericarditis, aortic dissection, myocarditis, myocardial infarction, and the like.
Angina is often a symptom of coronary artery disease. It feels like a tightness along the chest. This pain can also spread into the neck, shoulders, and arms, and is usually caused by an insufficient supply of blood to the heart.
CAD causes plaque to build up and narrow blood vessels which restricts blood flow. CAD not only causes angina, but it can cause chest pressure and pain that spreads to the jaw and back.
Pericarditis is often caused by a viral infection, heart attack, or complications due to trauma. Its symptoms include a sharp, stabbing pain that travels from the left side of the chest to the left shoulder and neck. Chest pain related to this condition doesn’t usually last long.
An aortic dissection is a tear in the inner layer of the aorta, which is a large blood vessel that extends from the heart. Symptoms of this issue include sudden chest and back pain that then trickles down the lower back and up to the neck. People with this problem may also have trouble breathing and may even lose consciousness.
Myocarditis is inflammation of the middle layer of the heart. This condition not only causes chest pain, but it can cause a quick heart beat, fever, breathing difficulties, and exhaustion.
A myocardial infarctions””more commonly known as a heart attack””is a blockage of blood flow to the heart that can cause heart muscle cells to die. The chest pain during a heart attack can feel similar to angina, but it is usually much more severe and found at the center or left side of the chest. Unlike angina, rest will not help a heart attack get better. Along with chest pain, heart attacks can cause fatigue, nausea, sweating, and breathing difficulties.
Chest Pain Causes
One of the most common causes of chest pain is angina, which occurs when the muscles in the heart don’t get enough blood. It feels like pressure and a squeezing sensation within the chest, and is often triggered by stress or physical activity and therefore is relieved after a few minutes of rest.
Heart attack is another common reason for chest pain. This occurs when a blockage stops blood from reaching the heart, and the pain is often accompanied by sweating and vomiting.
Other conditions affecting the cardiovascular system which could cause chest pain include:
- Aortic dissection (the heart’s aortic artery tears)
- Aortic stenosis (the heart’s aortic valve narrows)
- Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (a disease of the heart muscles)
- Pericarditis (tissues around the heart become inflamed)
- Pulmonary embolism (blockage of an artery in the lung)
Alternatively, chest pain might be caused by the following lung conditions:
- Costochondritis (inflammation of the cartilage between the ribs and breast bone
- Lung infection
There are also many other conditions completely unrelated to the heart and lungs which could cause chest pain, such as:
- Panic attack
- GERD (gastro-esophageal reflex disease)
- Strained muscle in the chest wall
How is Chest Pain Treated?
If the patient is diagnosed with a heart condition, then he or she can treat the symptoms and risks by managing blood pressure, cholesterol, and other lifestyle choices. A doctor may come up with a cardiac rehabilitation program, so that a patient can implement a safe exercise program and gain more education about his or her condition.
Oxygen therapy is a good way to get more oxygen into the bloodstream; it also relieves chest pain and makes it easier to breathe. Blood thinners, narcotics, beta blockers, and angiotensin-converting-enzyme inhibitors may be used to prevent blockages, release hypertension, and lower blood pressure.
In severe cases, surgery may be required to get surgery. For instance a coronary artery bypass is where blood flow is restored by using a healthy vein or artery to bypass a blockage. An angioplasty can unblock a blood vessel, and a tubular stent can keep coronary arteries open so that heart attacks are less likely to occur.
If a patient has chest pain from angina or stress, treatment may include rest and avoiding activities that trigger distress.
Chest Pain Prevention
Since chest pain can be caused by a whole range of conditions, it isn’t possibly to completely prevent it. However, you can reduce your risk of developing many cardiovascular problems that cause chest pain by maintaining a healthy heart.
Firstly, those who smoke should quit, as smoking can cause a wide range of health problems affecting the heart and lungs. Secondly, get plenty of exercise. Three 30-minute sessions of moderate exercise each week will help to keep the heart and lungs healthy.
Thirdly, make sure you consume a balanced diet that is low in saturated fat and sugar, and rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, low fat dairy products and lean meats. A healthy diet will also help you to reach or maintain a healthy BMI which is also very important, since being overweight and obese increases the risk of many cardiovascular diseases.
Finally, keep an eye on the state of your heart health by undergoing regular blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol checks. Whenever one of these creeps up a little higher than normal, talk to your doctor about the steps you can take to get it back to a healthy level.