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Does Chest Pain Mean a Heart Attack? 6 Facts to Know

Most of us wisely think “heart attack” when someone has chest pain. More than 1 million people have a heart attack each year. That number equals the populations of Milwaukee and Minneapolis combined.

If you think you may be having a heart attack, call 9-1-1. Don’t wait. Call even if you don’t know if it’s a heart attack. The call can save your life.

And don’t drive yourself to the hospital even if you feel OK for a little while. Your condition can change quickly, and you will put others on the road in danger if you lose consciousness.

Here’s some additional information you should know about heart attacks:

Heart attacks can be tricky. Although it’s uncommon, not everyone who’s having a heart attack has chest pain.

Women may experience shortness of breath, fatigue, sudden weakness that feels like the flu.

Diabetics and the elderly may feel unwell, dizzy or weak. They may be short of breath.

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women. Know the four signs of a heart attack.

We do have some reassuring news: Chest pain may not be a heart attack. Let’s explore:

  1. Your health care professional may refer to “angina” or “angina pectoris.” That’s the medical term for chest pain. The terms encompass pressure or tightness in the chest.

    Angina is not the same as a heart attack. Here are some key differences:

Heart Attack


2. Heart attacks usually come on suddenly. Symptoms last longer – Usually more than 15 minutes.

Angina typically results from stress or exertion. Symptoms usually go away with rest in about 5 to 10 minutes.

3. The pain from a heart attack may be described as extreme pressure, squeezing or fullness. Some victims have no chest pain.

Angina is usually described as discomfort, rather than pain.

4. A heart attack can cause permanent damage to the heart muscle.

Angina doesn’t result in permanent damage to the heart.


5. Other than a heart attack, chest pain can be caused by heart conditions such as:

  • Mitral valve prolapse — your heart's mitral valve doesn't close correctly.
  • Myocarditis — a heart muscle inflammation. Along with chest pain, you may have a fever, fatigue and trouble breathing.
  • Pericarditis — an infection or inflammation of the sac around your heart. Pain from pericarditis tends to be sharp and steady. You’ll feel it along your upper neck and shoulder muscles. The pain may get worse when you breathe, swallow food or lie on your back.
  • Aortic dissection — a life-threatening tear develops in your aorta — your largest artery. This uncommon tear causes sudden severe, ripping pain in your neck, back or abdomen.

6. Chest pain can come from one of the other organs in your chest. In fact, for about 25 percent of people with chest pain, the source is not the heart. The source could be your lungs, esophagus, diaphragm (the muscle that draws air into your lungs) or your liver. You also have other muscles, tendons, ribs and lots of nerves in your chest that can be a source of chest pain. Chest pain can be caused by:

  • Heart burn (gastroesophageal reflux disease – GERD), stomach ulcers, an inflammation of your stomach lining (gastritis) or gallstones.
  • Lung problems such as blood clots, an infection (can result in pneumonia) or a collapsed lung.
  • A chest muscle or tendon strain.
  • Asthma.
  • Panic attack. This type of attack can happen without warning.

Now that we’ve reviewed some basic reasons other than a heart attack for chest pain, we want to reiterate a key point:

If you think you may be having a heart attack, call 9-1-1. You won’t know how serious it is until you see your health care professional. If you wait to “see what happens,” you may not see tomorrow.

If you have a chest pain that concerns you, see your health care provider.

You can schedule an appointment online or find a doctor to help guide you.

Once the cause of your discomfort is diagnosed, a course of treatment can be planned to get you back on your road to wellness.


Meet the Author

Michael L. Otte, MD is a family medicine physician at Aurora Health Center - Germantown.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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