Chest pain presents differently across individuals. Doctors may consider some symptoms typical and others atypical. For this reason, it is important to recognize a range of symptoms to avoid missing potential signs of a heart attack.

This article discusses the differences between atypical and typical chest pain, their potential causes, and diagnostic tests doctors may use to evaluate them. It also explores when to contact a doctor and answers common questions about atypical and typical chest pain.

However, because “atypical” symptoms of a heart attack present more frequently in females than males, some researchers suggest the term may be outdated, and supposedly atypical symptoms are actually typical in certain groups.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Chest pain symptoms may present differently depending on the underlying cause, a person’s sex, their age, and whether they have any preexisting health conditions.

According to the current terminology, atypical chest pain symptoms may include:

  • Intense pain in the upper abdominal area: This may involve discomfort in the location of the stomach, pancreas, and liver.
  • Intense back pain: This may involve burning and stabbing sensations in the back.
  • Severe indigestion-like pain: This may also involve burning and stabbing sensations.

Typical chest pain symptoms may include dull, heavy, tight, and crushing pain in the chest that can spread to the arm and jaw.

Research suggests females may experience atypical chest pain symptoms that indicate a heart attack more often than males.

Therefore, some researchers suggest it may be useful to discontinue the terms “typical” and “atypical” regarding chest pain or provide a reference for differentiating symptoms that are more or less likely depending on sex.

Atypical and typical chest pain symptoms may indicate various conditions, some of which may be life threatening.

This includes heart and lung conditions, such as:

Other conditions that may cause chest pain include:

The lists above are not exhaustive, and it is best for a person to speak with a healthcare professional if they experience any typical or atypical chest pain symptoms.

Anyone who suspects they are experiencing a heart attack or other life threatening condition or health event should seek medical attention immediately by calling 911.

When a person has either atypical or typical chest pain, a healthcare professional may ask for more details about the onset of the symptoms and their medical history. For example, they may ask what the person was doing when symptoms started.

They may also want to know more about any family history of heart disease and whether the person smokes.

In addition, a person will likely receive a physical exam and undergo various diagnostic tests.

These may include:

Experts suggest that healthcare professionals always consider a life threatening cause if a person has chest pain, for example, a heart attack or pulmonary embolism.

Due to atypical symptoms frequently occurring in females having heart attacks, it is important not to discount abdominal pain as a symptom. Females may sometimes not have any chest pain at all and only report abdominal pain.

When a person has chest pain, it is always best to speak with a doctor or healthcare professional. Chest pain can be acute or chronic, meaning it may come on suddenly or come and go over time.

Chronic chest pain, whether atypical or typical, can be a sign of a serious underlying condition. For example, if the pain results from a cholesterol buildup slowly reducing blood flow to the heart, it is important to manage this to reduce the person’s risk of a heart attack.

Sudden atypical or typical chest pain may be a sign of an immediately life threatening condition, such as a heart attack. In this case, a person will need to call 911.

Below are answers to some common questions about atypical and typical chest pain.

What is atypical chest pain?

Atypical chest pain is a painful sensation that people may not feel directly in the chest despite it potentially signaling an issue with the heart. Instead, it tends to occur in the back or abdomen.

What are the criteria for typical chest pain?

Typical chest pain may include a heavy, dull, tight, or crushing pain that affects the chest and may spread into the arm or jaw.

What are the atypical symptoms of a heart attack?

Atypical heart attack symptoms may include:

Females present more frequently with abdominal and back pain symptoms, which may feel similar to severe indigestion.

Atypical and typical chest pain symptoms can indicate many conditions, some of which may be life threatening. During a heart attack, females tend to experience intense abdominal pain and back pain more frequently than typical symptoms such as tightness in the arm, jaw, and chest.

Because of this, the terms “atypical” and “typical” may not accurately describe the different types of chest pain. As what is atypical for males appears not to be for females, some researchers are now calling for separate diagnostic criteria for people of different sexes.