Although chest pain can sometimes be a symptom of a heart problem, there are many other possible causes. While some of these are serious conditions, most are not harmful.

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

In this article, learn about many potential causes of chest pain and the other symptoms they cause.

Possible causes of chest pain

Chest pain affects up to 40 percent of the worldwide populationShare on Pinterest
Chest pain affects 20 to 40 percent of the global population.

1. 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.

2. Injured ribs

Injuries to the ribs, such as bruises, breaks, and fractures, can cause chest pain. A person may have heard a crack or felt extreme pain at the time of injury if they have a broken rib.

3. Peptic ulcers

Peptic ulcers, which are sores in the stomach lining, do not usually cause intense pain. However, they can result in a recurring discomfort in the chest.

Taking antacids, which are available to purchase online and in pharmacies, can usually relieve pain caused by peptic ulcers.

4. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

GERD refers to when the contents of the stomach move back up into the throat. It can cause a burning feeling in the chest and a sour taste in the mouth.

5. Asthma

Asthma is a common breathing disorder characterized by inflammation in the airways, which can cause chest pain. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing.

6. Collapsed lung

When air builds up in the space between the lungs and ribs, a lung can collapse, causing sudden chest pain when breathing. If someone has a collapsed lung, they will also experience shortness of breath, tiredness, and a rapid heart rate.

7. Costochondritis

Costochondritis is inflammation of the cartilage of the rib cage. This condition can cause chest pain. Costochondritis pain may get worse when sitting or lying in certain positions, as well as when a person does any physical activity.

8. Esophageal contraction disorders

Esophageal contraction disorders are spasms or contractions in the food pipe. These disorders can also cause chest pain.

9. Esophageal hypersensitivity

Changes in pressure in the food pipe or the presence of acid can sometimes cause severe pain. At present, experts are not sure what causes this sensitivity.

10. Esophageal rupture

If the food pipe bursts, this can result in sudden, intense chest pain. An esophageal rupture may occur after intense vomiting or an operation involving the esophagus.

11. Hiatal hernia

A hiatal hernia is when part of the stomach pushes up into the chest. This type of hernia is very common and may not cause any symptoms. However, if the top of the stomach pushes into the lower part of the chest after eating, it can cause symptoms of GERD, such as heartburn and chest pain.

12. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is when the heart grows too thick due to genetic factors. The thickening of the heart prevents blood from flowing from the heart properly, causing the muscle to work very hard to pump blood.

Symptoms of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy include chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, lightheadedness, and fainting.

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A panic attack can rapidly increase a person's heartbeat and cause chest pains.

13. Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis bacteria growing in the lungs can cause symptoms such as a bad cough, coughing up blood or sputum, or pain in the chest.

14. Mitral valve prolapse

Chest pain, palpitations, and dizziness are all symptoms of mitral valve prolapse, which is when a valve in the heart is unable to close fully. In mild cases, this condition may have no obvious symptoms.

15. Panic attack

A panic attack may cause chest pain in addition to nausea, dizziness, sweating, rapid heartbeat, and fear.

16. Pericarditis

Pericarditis is inflammation of the sac around the heart. It can result in sharp chest pain that is made worse by intakes of breath or lying down.

17. Pleurisy

Pleurisy is inflammation of the membrane that covers the lungs. It can result in sharp chest pain when breathing deeply.

18. Pneumonia

Lung infections such as pneumonia can cause sharp or stabbing chest pain. Other symptoms of pneumonia include fever, chills, and coughing up phlegm.

19. Pulmonary embolism

A pulmonary embolism is when a blood clot gets trapped in an artery feeding blood to the lungs. It can cause chest pain, difficulty breathing, and coughing up blood. Pulmonary embolisms can be life-threatening if not treated immediately.

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A person should contact a doctor if chest pain comes on suddenly.

20. Heart attack

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

  • pain in the jaw, neck or back
  • light-headedness or weakness
  • pain in the arms or shoulders
  • shortness of breath

Women experiencing a heart attack may also experience sudden tiredness, nausea, or vomiting.

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

21. Myocarditis

Myocarditis is when the heart becomes inflamed, resulting in symptoms that are similar to a heart attack, such as:

  • chest pain
  • fever
  • trouble breathing
  • fatigue
  • racing heartbeat

22. Angina

Angina feels like a squeezing pain or pressure on the chest. It occurs when not enough blood is getting to the heart. A person may also feel pain in the shoulders, back, neck, arms, or jaw.

Angina is a symptom of coronary artery disease.

23. Aortic dissection

Aortic dissection is a separation of the inner layers of the aorta, the main artery that leads from the heart. When this happens, a buildup of blood can cause the artery to burst. Aortic dissection is life-threatening, so requires immediate medical help.

24. Coronary artery dissection

Sudden intense pain that appears to "tear" across the chest, neck, back, or abdomen can be a symptom of coronary artery dissection. This rare but serious condition occurs when the coronary artery tears.

25. Pancreatitis

One rare symptom of pancreatitis is pain in the lower chest that is made worse by lying down flat.

26. 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.

When to see 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. Anyone experience chest pain and difficulty breathing should go to the hospital or call for emergency medical help.

Symptoms that may require emergency help include:

  • a crushing sensation on the breastbone
  • chest pain that spreads to the jaw, left arm, or back
  • confusion, an accelerating heartbeat, or rapid breathing

Even when chest pain feels severe, a heart attack is not the most likely cause. However, more than 1 million people have heart attacks every year in the U.S., so it is essential to seek medical attention if a person is unsure.