Chest pain myth-busters

With a heart attack, you may feel pain or discomfort in your back, jaw or arms, and not your chest. Read on to learn some top chest pain myths.

Chest pain does not necessarily mean a heart attack. Other conditions can result in chest pain. Some, like heartburn, have nothing to do with the heart.

Also, heart attacks don’t always cause chest pain. One study found 1 in 5 heart people had heart attacks without chest pain. With a heart attack, you may feel pain or discomfort in your back, jaw or arms, and not your chest. You also can feel pain in the stomach area that you might confuse with indigestion. 

When a heart attack does cause chest pain, it begins in the left side or center of the chest and typically spreads to the back, jaw or arms. In men, heart attack pain radiates to the left arm most of the time, but not always. In women, the pain is more likely to spread to either arm.

Unlike the textbook heart attack, where you feel as though you have an elephant sitting on your chest, pain from a heart attack can range from mild to severe. The discomfort usually lasts for a few minutes and can feel like an uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or more serious pain. It also can go away and return a short time later.

Many women do experience chest pain with heart attacks, but they are more likely than men to get less-common symptoms, such as shortness of breath, indigestion, nausea or back pain — sometimes without any chest pain.

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You may have heard taking aspirin will help with chest pain. This a myth. Aspirin is not a pain reliever typically used for chest pain. However, taking aspirin thins the blood, which helps prevent heart-attack-producing blood clots from forming. If you are having a heart attack, call 911. The dispatcher may recommend you take an aspirin, depending on your symptoms.

Chest pain can result from other causes.

For example, a condition called angina (an-JYNE’-uh) also can cause a feeling of squeezing, pressure or heaviness on the chest. Angina is caused by part of the heart not getting enough oxygen and usually occurs during exercise or physical activity. Chest pain from a heart attack lasts longer than angina and, unlike angina, does not improve by resting or taking a nitroglycerin pill.

Chest pain also can be caused by myocarditis, which is an inflammation of the heart muscle, or cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle.

Straining the muscles between your ribs, called intercostal muscles, by weightlifting or doing other forms of exercise, can result in chest pain. Injured ribs, or chronic pain syndromes such as fibromyalgia, also can result in chest pain.

Chest pain is more common in older people because their hearts need to work harder to pump blood. However, chest pain also occurs in children and adolescents. It is usually harmless in children and teens, but when it occurs with exercise or is accompanied by a fast heartbeat, dizziness or fainting, it may be a sign of a heart issue.

Heart attacks do not only occur in older people. They are becoming more common in people in their 20s and 30s.  Diabetes is a key risk factor for an early heart attack. High blood pressure, another risk factor for a heart attack, is also becoming more common among younger adults.

After a meal of spicy or acidic foods or drinking caffeinated beverages or alcohol, you might experience a burning sensation in your chest known as heartburn, which also can leave a sour taste in your mouth. Heartburn is caused when digestive acid moves into the esophagus, the tube that normally carries swallowed food to your stomach. Heartburn is usually relieved by antacids. Unlike heartburn, a heart attack often is accompanied by fatigue, a cold sweat, or lightheadedness or dizziness.

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