Heaviness or tightness in the chest can result from various mental and physical health conditions including stress, anxiety, and lung complications. It can also be a sign of a heart attack.
A feeling of heaviness is one way that a person may describe chest pain or discomfort. Other sensations that a person with chest pain may experience include:
This article explores 13 causes of a heavy feeling in the chest and ways to treat them.
Anxiety can cause a number of physical symptoms, including a heavy feeling in the chest.
Anxiety disorder is a mental health condition that causes a person to feel worried, apprehensive, and tense. It can also cause many physical symptoms.
Experiencing anxiety can lead to a heavy or tight feeling in the chest. Other physical symptoms of anxiety include:
- muscle tension
- a rapid heartbeat
- fast breathing
- pins and needles
A panic attack involves experiencing many of these symptoms at once. Panic attack symptoms feel intense and overwhelming.
If a person has not had a panic attack before, they may mistake their symptoms for those of a heart attack.
Experiencing a panic attack can make a person feel like they are in physical danger, but these attacks are not physically harmful. Symptoms usually pass after 10–20 minutes.
If a person has panic attacks often, they may have a type of anxiety disorder called panic disorder.
Depression is another psychological cause of a heavy feeling in the chest. A 2017 study found a link between having depression and experiencing recurrent chest pain.
A person with depression may experience physical symptoms because depression affects how people feel pain. One theory is that this is because depression affects the neurotransmitters that govern both pain and mood.
People with depression may also experience chest heaviness due to an increase in perceived stress.
Unexplained aches and pains accompanied by feeling low, hopeless, guilty, or worthless may be a sign of depression.
Chest pain may result from intercostal muscle strain, which can happen when a person overstretches and pulls the muscle that holds the ribs in place.
Straining the intercostal muscles may put pressure on the ribs and cause a heavy feeling in the chest.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a digestive disorder that can cause chest pain.
GERD occurs when stomach acid comes back up into a person’s throat. As well as chest pain, it may cause:
- excessive saliva
- pain when swallowing
- a sore throat
Pericarditis pain may get worse if a person lies down.
Pericarditis is a heart problem that may cause chest pain.
The pericardium is the name of the layers of tissue surrounding the heart. Pericarditis occurs when the pericardium becomes infected and swells.
When swollen, the pericardium may rub against the heart, causing chest pain. The pain typically gets better when a person sits upright and worse when they lie down.
As well as chest pain, angina may cause pain in the:
Chest discomfort is one symptom of a heart attack. During a heart attack, a person’s chest may feel:
Other heart attack symptoms include:
- pain in the neck, jaw, arms, back, or stomach
- shortness of breath
- a cold sweat
A heart attack is a medical emergency, so anyone who suspects that they are having one should seek immediate medical care.
Pneumonia can cause chest pain that worsens when a person coughs or breathes deeply.
It is a complication of the flu and other respiratory infections. Other symptoms of pneumonia include:
- shortness of breath
- a cough
A partial or completely collapsed lung may cause a person’s chest to feel heavy and painful.
Known as pneumothorax, a collapsed lung happens when air collects in the space between the lungs and chest wall. Pneumothorax can occur on its own or as a complication of lung disease.
As well as chest pain, a person with a collapsed lung may experience shortness of breath.
A pulmonary embolism requires immediate medical treatment.
A heavy or painful feeling in the chest may be a sign of a pulmonary embolism. This is when a blockage occurs in the pulmonary artery, or the artery in the lung.
The blockage is usually a blood clot, but in rare cases, it can be made up of other substances, such as fat.
The blockage will cause other symptoms, such as:
- severe difficulty breathing
- a fast heartbeat
- passing out
A pulmonary embolism is a medical emergency and can be life-threatening without treatment.
If a person has pain where their breastbone meets their ribs, they may have costochondritis.
Also known as chest wall pain, costochondritis occurs when the cartilage between the rib and the breastbone becomes inflamed. The pain may feel worse when a person touches the area.
Gallstones do not always cause symptoms, but if they block a person’s bile ducts, they can cause chest pain. Doctors refer to this as a gallbladder attack.
A person usually feels gallbladder attack pain in the upper right abdomen. The pain is often sharp and sudden, but it can feel like dull, heavy cramping.
Sudden chest pain may result from an aortic dissection.
The aorta is the main artery that comes from the heart. An aortic dissection occurs when the wall of the aorta tears.
This is a medical emergency and requires immediate treatment.
The treatment for a heavy-feeling chest varies, depending on the cause. We explore treatments for the mental and physical causes of chest pain below.
Treating psychological causes
When chest heaviness or tightness is a symptom of anxiety or depression, it is important to get help for the underlying condition.
People can often manage depression and anxiety through a combination of medication and talk therapy.
Lifestyle changes and stress-management techniques can also help. These include:
- regular exercise
- yoga, mindfulness, or meditation
- eating a healthful, balanced diet
- getting enough sleep
- seeking emotional support from family and friends
Treating physical causes
Each of the following causes of chest heaviness or pain may have a different treatment:
- Muscle strain: Pain-relieving medication, rest, and compresses can heal the strain over time.
- GERD: Lifestyle and dietary changes can often prevent symptoms.
- Pericarditis: A doctor may prescribe medication to reduce inflammation.
- Angina: Medication and lifestyle changes can often reduce symptoms. Sometimes surgery is necessary.
- Heart attack: This requires emergency treatment, which may include medication and surgery.
- Pneumonia: Rest and medication can help treat the infection. A person may require hospital treatment if symptoms are severe.
- Collapsed lung: Treatment focuses on releasing the trapped air
- Pulmonary embolism: A person may receive blood-thinning drugs, oxygen, and pain relief in the hospital.
- Costochondritis: Pain-relieving medication, compresses, and rest can relieve symptoms.
- Gallstones: Gallbladder attacks may require hospital treatment.
- Aortic dissection: This may require emergency surgery.
People who have anxiety or depression may recognize a heavy feeling in the chest as a symptom of their condition. In this case, it is not usually necessary to see a doctor every time symptoms occur.
However, as chest heaviness and pain have many causes, it is best to see a doctor when new symptoms happen for the first time.
Anyone experiencing sudden, unexplained, severe chest pain should contact emergency services.