What could cause chest pain? 10 Reasons

Chest pain can stem from a heart problem, but other possible causes include a lung infection, muscle strain, a rib injury, or a panic attack. Some of these are serious conditions and need medical attention.

Chest pain is the second biggest cause of emergency room (ER) visits in the United States, leading to over 8 million ER visits every year. Worldwide, chest pain affects 20–40% of the general population.

In this article, learn about some possible causes of chest pain and other symptoms that can help identify them.

Heart problems

1. Heart attack

Chest pain is one of the main symptoms of a heart attack. The others are:

  • pain in the jaw, neck, or back
  • lightheadedness or weakness
  • pain in the arms or shoulders
  • shortness of breath

Females, particularly, may also experience sudden tiredness, nausea, or vomiting.

If someone thinks they are having a heart attack, they should seek emergency medical help. The quicker a person can get to the ER, the quicker treatment can begin.

Getting prompt treatment increases a person’s chances of survival and potentially reduces the severity of the damage to the heart.

2. Myocarditis

Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart muscle, resulting in symptoms that are similar to a heart attack, such as:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • fast or irregular heartbeat

Myocarditis usually results from a viral infection, according to the British Heart Foundation.

3. Angina

Angina feels like a squeezing pain or pressure on the chest. It occurs

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 when not enough blood is getting to the heart. A person may also feel pain in the:

  • shoulder
  • back
  • neck
  • arms
  • jaw

Angina can feel like indigestion.

It is the most common symptom of coronary artery disease.

Lung problems

Various lung problems can cause chest pain.

9. Pulmonary hypertension

Pulmonary hypertension is high blood pressure in the arteries that carry blood to the lungs. In some cases, this may result in chest pain.

It can happen for various reasons and can result in:

  • breathlessness and faintness when exercising
  • shortness of breath when bending down
  • fatigue
  • swelling due to fluid buildup

Pulmonary hypertension is not usually immediately life threatening, but it does need medical attention.

10. Pleurisy

Pleurisy is inflammation of the membrane that covers the lungs.

Symptoms include:

  • chest or shoulder pain
  • pain is worse when breathing, coughing, sneezing, or moving the trunk or chest wall
  • pain may be dull, aching, or “catching”

Without treatment, it can lead to life threatening complications.

11. Pneumonia

Lung infections such as pneumonia can cause sharp or stabbing chest pain, especially when breathing deeply or coughing.

Other symptoms of pneumonia include:

  • fever, sweating, and chills
  • coughing up phlegm, colored green, yellow, or containing blood
  • shortness of breath
  • bluish tinge to the lips or fingertips
  • rapid, shallow breathing
  • low appetite, low energy, and fatigue
  • nausea and vomiting (in young children)
  • confusion (in older people)

A person with breathing difficulty needs immediate medical attention, as pneumonia can be life threatening.

Find out more about bacterial pneumonia and viral pneumonia.

12. Pulmonary embolism

A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot getting trapped in an artery feeding blood to the lungs.

Common symptoms include:

  • chest pain, especially when breathing in
  • back pain
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing up blood
  • leg pain or swelling
  • sweating
  • lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting
  • blue tinge to lips or nails, known as hypoxia

Pulmonary embolisms can be life threatening without urgent treatment.

13. COVID-19

A person with COVID-19 may experience respiratory symptoms, pain, or pressure in the chest.

A person should seek immediate medical help if they have:

  • persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • breathing difficulty
  • blue lips or nails
  • new confusion
  • difficulty staying awake

Other causes

Here are some other reasons chest pain might occur.

23. Panic attack

A panic attack is a sudden attack of panic or fear. Often a person does not know why it happens, but it may be a symptom of a condition known as panic disorder.

The individual may experience:

  • chest pain
  • a rapid heartbeat
  • fear
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • sweating
  • shaking and trembling

The symptoms can resemble those of a heart attack.

A doctor may prescribe drugs, counseling, or both to help manage panic disorder.

26. Muscle strain

Inflammation of the muscles and tendons around the ribs can result in persistent chest pain. If the pain becomes worse with activity, then it may be a symptom of a muscle strain.

Learn more here about a pulled muscle in the chest.

When to contact a doctor

It is always best to contact a doctor if chest pain comes on suddenly, especially if taking anti-inflammatory medications does not ease symptoms.

A person should seek emergency medical help if they have:

  • pain that spreads to the arms, back, neck, or jaw
  • tightness or heaviness in the chest
  • pain that started with nausea, vomiting, sweating
  • difficulty breathing or changes in breathing rate
  • blue lips or nail beds
  • severe pain that lasts longer than 15 minutes
  • confusion

In some cases, chest pain can be life threatening. For this reason, a person should not ignore it.

Frequently asked questions

Here are the answers to some questions people often ask about chest pain.

How do I know if my chest pain is serious?

Chest pain that comes on suddenly may be serious. Alongside this, other serious symptoms include pain that spreads to the arms, back, neck, or jaw, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, or pain that starts with nausea, vomiting, and sweating.

Any person experiencing chest pain should consult a doctor.

What can cause chest pain besides a heart attack?

Some common causes of chest pain, besides a heart attack, include myocarditis, angina, pneumonia, and Covid-19.

Can you have chest pain without a heart attack?

Yes, it is possible for a person to have chest pain without a heart attack being the cause. Indeed, a person’s chest may be hurting for many reasons, ranging from muscle strain to a panic attack.

However, it is best to seek medical advice for any type of chest pain, as some causes can have severe consequences.

What are the 4 signs of an impending heart attack?

Four signs of an impending heart attack include:

  1. pain in the jaw, neck, or back
  2. lightheadedness or weakness
  3. pain in the arms or shoulders
  4. shortness of breath

People with these symptoms should seek immediate medical help.



Chest pain can happen for many reasons. Often, the other signs that occur with it will give an idea of why chest pain occurs.

However, any severe chest pain needs urgent medical attention, especially if it is radiating to the arm, back, or neck, if the heart rate changes, or if the person has trouble breathing.

Anyone with concerns about chest pain should seek medical advice to rule out life threatening causes and obtain suitable treatment.


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