Chest pain: When is it an emergency?
Getting treatment as soon as possible following a heart attack can save your life. Just one hour can make a difference. But how can you tell when chest pain requires an antacid — or a trip to the emergency room? This guide will help you distinguish a temporary twinge from a heart attack (and other pains in between). But remember, it’s always best to err on the side of caution whenever you experience troublesome symptoms. Don’t wait until it’s too late to spare your heart!
• Muscle strain. This usually happens after you’ve exerted yourself. Let’s say you picked up a heavy box or participated in an intensive exercise class. This kind of chest pain is just like the achiness you feel when you’ve overused muscles in other parts of your body. While often very painful, muscle strain rarely is accompanied by other serious symptoms.
• Indigestion. Often mistaken for a heart attack, indigestion frequently follows a heavy, high-fat meal. It’s usually accompanied by one or more other symptoms such as nausea, feelings of fullness, belching and bloating.
• Food poisoning. Eating contaminated food will trigger a long list of symptoms in addition to possible chest pain: nausea, vomiting, sweating, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, thirst, confusion, vertigo and muscle weakness. A sure sign of food poisoning: A dining companion who ate the same dish has come down with the same symptoms.
• Anxiety. People who complain of chest pain that has no physical cause often score high on tests for anxiety.
Serious chest pains
• Pneumonia. Coughing, chills, headache and breathing difficulties are a good sign that the sharp pain you feel in your chest is not a symptom of heart disease.
• Pericarditis. After a viral infection, the sac that surrounds the heart may fill with fluid. As the body changes position, the heart rubs against the inflamed membrane. This usually causes a sharp, piercing pain over the center or left side of the chest. However, some people experience a dull pain. Sitting up and leaning forward often relieves the pain, while lying down aggravates it. Pericarditis often is accompanied by fever, chills, weakness and anxiety.
• Angina. Usually felt as a tight sensation in the midchest, angina pain — a symptom of heart disease — may shoot out to the left arm and fingertips. The discomfort, which lasts no more than five minutes, may also be felt in other areas, such as the jaw, teeth and between the shoulder blades. Angina pain generally is brought on by exertion, and stopping the activity usually brings immediate relief.
• Heart attack. The chest pain of a heart attack may range from slight pressure to a feeling that the chest is being crushed. Several symptoms often accompany this severe pain: The person may be overtaken by a sense of doom, the face turns ashen and the skin becomes clammy. Belching and vomiting also may occur.
If there’s any reason to suspect a heart attack is occurring, it’s important to get to an emergency room as quickly as possible. New drugs available today can limit the amount of damage to the heart if used within the first few hours of a heart attack. The sooner a diagnosis is made and treatment starts, the better the chances of a good recovery.