The first thing to know about chest pain is this: It doesn’t always mean you’re about to have a heart attack.
Most of the time, chest pain isn’t even related to the heart. But it can be difficult to distinguish between chest pain that’s related to the heart - often referred to as angina - and pain that’s due to other causes.
“Chest pain could be due to any number of things, such as anxiety, acid reflux, pneumonia or even a pulled muscle from lifting weights,” said Dr. Rana Zaban, a Beaumont family medicine doctor.
Symptoms of heart-related chest pain
When it’s related to your heart, chest pain is usually characterized by a dull, squeezing or pressure-like sensation of the chest. The pain, Dr. Zaban said, may move down the left arm or radiate up to the jaw. Other signs that your chest pain is heart-related are when the pain:
- lasts minutes, not seconds
- is accompanied by shortness of breath
- is coupled with a loss of consciousness or nearly passing out
- comes with nausea or vomiting
- makes you sweat
- produces dizziness or light-headedness
- comes with a fast or irregular pulse
But women, the elderly and diabetics don’t always experience these typical symptoms. Their symptoms may feel more like reflux or be characterized by general abdominal pain or dizziness.
When to call a doctor
Dr. Zaban said you should see your family physician if you begin to notice a pattern in which your chest pain is recurrent and is associated with certain situations, like exercise or when your body is under strain. That might signal that you need to get a stress test to look for underlying heart disease.
“You should be concerned if the chest pain is related to exertion, such as vacuuming or climbing stairs,” Dr. Zaban said. “If the event is very serious, the pain and discomfort may be so severe that it does not resolve at rest. If this occurs, you should go to the ER because this could be due to a heart attack or other serious issue.”
Of course, the best way to prevent heart-related chest pain is to embrace preventive health. Dr. Zaban offered the following tips.
- Quit smoking. Your family medicine physician has resources and can point you to counseling to help.
- Exercise. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of aerobic activity. That means 30 minutes of a brisk walk, jogging or swimming, five days a week.
- See your primary care physician for an annual physical and blood work to make sure your blood pressure and cholesterol levels are in a healthy range and that you don’t have undiagnosed diabetes.
- Talk to your doctor about whether you should start taking baby aspirin daily to lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Also, check out these 5 heart-healthy habits you can start today.