Chest pain can be indicative of a number of conditions, some more serious an others. It is important to be able to tell the difference between the more serious and urgent problems, such as a heart attack, and the milder conditions in order to react appropriately. Whatever the cause, even something as mild as muscle pain, chest pains can be frightening and unexpected.

If the cause of chest pain is difficult to establish, it is best to seek medical attention as quickly as possible.

Taking chest pain seriously

Recent research carried out by the British Heart Foundation has found that 620,000 people in the UK could be carrying a faulty gene which puts them at higher risk of developing heart disease or of sudden death. The faulty gene can occur in anyone, despite age or apparent health, and children of those with the faulty gene have a 50% chance of inheriting it.

Reacting to sudden or serious chest pain

A heart attack is one of the most serious issues associated with chest pain. If you suspect a heart attack, or if the pain is sudden, DIAL 999 IMMEDIATELY. This is of particular importance if you are at a high risk of coronary heart disease. You are more at risk if:

  • You are a smoker
  • You are obese
  • You have an underlying heart condition
  • You are diabetic
  • You have high blood pressure or high cholesterol

Other causes of chest pain

Other causes of chest pain include gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, which is relatively common. In this case, the chest pain is caused by excessive stomach acid travelling up the oesophagus and causing a painful burning sensation, like heartburn. This does not require ambulance attention, but if you are suffering from severe heartburn, the NHS Choices site can give guidance on what to do.

Costochondritis also causes quite severe chest pain and is caused by inflammation of the cartilage which joins the breast bone to the ribs. Again, this condition does not require ambulance attention, but it can be difficult to tell the difference between this and a more serious condition. If this is the case, and the cause if difficult to determine, seek medical attention.

If the chest pain is not sudden, and is affected by your breathing, the cause could be pleurisy or pneumonia. If you suspect either of these things, make an appointment with your GP or contact the out of hours service for an appointment as soon as possible.

The least serious cause of chest pain could be muscle strain. Much like back pain, a person may not be able to pin-point exactly when they strained a muscle so the cause may not be obvious. In the case of muscle pain, there is unlikely to be any need to seek medical attention. Rest and pain killers, if necessary, should be sufficient.

Differentiating between severe and mild chest pain

It can be difficult to establish whether chest pain is caused by an urgent, serious condition or something that may not necessarily require immediate medical attention.

However, sudden pain, or pain accompanied by a tight or pressing sensation, or pain which spreads to other parts of the body including the arms, back or jaw, will need immediate attention. This is also the case if the pain lasts 15 minutes or more, or if there are other symptoms such as nausea, coughing up blood, breathlessness, and sweating. In these cases YOU MUST DIAL 999 IMMEDIATELY.

Otherwise, less serious conditions can often be managed at home or with the help of your GP or the out of hours service. Advice and guidance can also be obtained from the NHS Direct helpline by dialling 111.