Experiencing an intermittent stabbing pain in the chest can be worrying, but there are many possible causes of this type of chest pain. Although some can be serious and even life threatening, others are benign.
Certain factors can help determine the cause of stabbing chest pain. These include the exact location of the pain, its severity, and whether other symptoms are present.
In this article, we outline some of the possible causes of intermittent stabbing chest pain, along with their associated symptoms and treatments. We also provide tips on how to prevent certain causes of chest pain and explain when to see a doctor.
A heart attack is a severe shortage or complete blockage of blood flow to the heart muscle.
A heart attack may cause a dull, crushing, or stabbing pain in the chest. The pain may occur in the center of the chest or just left of the center. It may radiate out to other areas of the body, such as:
- the area between the shoulder blades
- the left arm
- the neck
- the jaw
Other possible symptoms of a heart attack include
- tightness or pressure in the chest
- sudden nausea or vomiting
- feelings of dread
Heart attack pain generally comes on over the course of a few minutes and lasts longer than several minutes. It may also go away and then return.
A heart attack is a medical emergency. Anyone who suspects that they or someone else is experiencing a heart attack should contact the emergency services immediately.
Even people with no prior warning signs of heart disease should seek medical attention. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that a heart attack can be the first sign of heart disease that a person experiences.
The treatment for a heart attack depends on its cause and severity. Medications can reduce and prevent blood clot formation, but some people may require surgery to widen the coronary artery or divert blood flow away from a blocked or narrowed section.
Heartburn is chest pain that occurs when stomach acid leaks out of the stomach and back up into the esophagus (food pipe). The esophagus is the tube that connects the mouth and stomach.
People typically experience heartburn as a sharp or burning pain in the center of the chest. The pain may radiate up to the neck.
Heartburn may occur alongside additional symptoms, such as:
- upset stomach
- partially regurgitating food
- feelings of fullness or bloating
- excess gas and burping
- a sour taste in the mouth, especially after burping
Occasional heartburn is not usually a cause for concern. However, recurrent heartburn may be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). In people with GERD, stomach acid frequently leaks into the esophagus, causing repeated bouts of pain, discomfort, or irritation.
Some people may require over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medications to help manage their heartburn. Some examples include:
Pericarditis is the inflammation of the pericardium, which is the thin membrane of tissue surrounding the heart.
Pericarditis causes a sharp, sudden pain in the center or left side of the chest that tends to worsen when a person breathes deeply. The pain may also worsen when a person is lying down, but it often gets better when they get up or lean forward.
Other possible symptoms of pericarditis include:
- chest pressure
- heart palpitations
- difficulty breathing
- general fatigue
- mild fever
- swelling in the legs or abdomen
If the condition has a bacterial cause, a doctor may also prescribe a course of antibiotics.
Angina is chest pain that occurs as a result of reduced blood flow to the heart. It is a symptom of an underlying heart issue rather than a disease in itself.
Angina typically causes pain, pressure, or squeezing sensations in the chest. These sensations may radiate out to the following parts of the body:
- the back
- the shoulders or arms
- the neck
- the jaw
The chest pain often occurs in response to physical exertion or stress and typically goes away within a few minutes of resting.
Other possible signs of angina include:
- pain in the lower chest or abdomen
Angina can mimic the symptoms of a heart attack. Anyone experiencing a bout of angina should contact a doctor who will determine whether emergency treatment is necessary.
A doctor may prescribe the medication nitroglycerin to lessen the symptoms of an episode of angina.
If the initial dose does not work within 5 minutes, a person should take a second dose. If the second dose is also ineffective after 5 minutes, a person should phone the emergency services, as they may be experiencing a heart attack.
Doctors may prescribe certain medications to help prevent further episodes of angina, as well as heart attacks and strokes. Examples of such medications include:
- beta-blockers to make the heart beat slowly and less forcefully
- calcium channel blockers to increase the blood supply to the heart
- low dose aspirin to prevent blood clots
- statins to lower cholesterol levels
- angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors to lower blood pressure
Precordial catch syndrome (PCS) is a harmless condition that primarily affects children and young adults.
PCS causes very brief moments of sharp pain on the left side of the chest. The pain may worsen when the person breathes in.
PCS pain typically comes on when a person is at rest or shifting positions. The pain usually lasts only a few seconds to a few minutes. Once gone, it leaves no lasting symptoms.
The cause of PCS is unknown. However, experts believe that it may be due to a spasm of the intercostal muscles that sit between the ribs. These spasms may pinch nearby nerves, causing pain.
PCS typically does not require treatment, and it causes no negative health effects.
A panic attack is a feeling of intense fear. A stressful event may trigger or it, or it might come on unexpectedly.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, a panic attack includes at least four of the following symptoms.
- chest pain or discomfort
- palpitations or accelerated heart rate
- the feeling of choking or being smothered
- feeling short of breath
- feeling unusually hot or cold
- trembling or shaking
- sensations of numbness or tingling
- feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- stomach discomfort
- feelings of dread
- fear of losing control
- fear of dying
The National Institute of Mental Health note that the symptoms come on very quickly, reaching their peak within minutes.
The following tips can help a person remain calm when they feel a panic attack coming on:
- trying not to fight the panic attack
- remembering that the panic attack will pass
- remembering that the panic attack is not life threatening
- breathing slowly and deeply
- focusing on positive, peaceful, and relaxing images
A sharp stabbing pain in the chest could be a sign of an injury, such as a strained chest muscle or a fractured rib bone. Either type of injury could cause a sharp, sudden pain at the site of the damage.
Some possible causes of chest injury include:
- lifting weights or other heavy objects incorrectly
- an overly strenuous chest workout
- an accident
The treatment for a strained chest muscle is the same as that for any other type of muscle strain. It involves resting, icing, compressing, and elevating the affected area. This approach is known as the RICE method.
A broken or bruised rib usually heals on its own within 3–6 weeks. In the meantime, a person can take OTC pain relievers to alleviate pain.
Pleuritis, or pleurisy, is inflammation and irritation of the lining of the lungs and chest. The condition can cause brief, sharp chest pain during bodily movements such as:
Pleuritis can occur as a result of the following:
- bacterial or viral infections
- rheumatoid arthritis
- a blocked artery in the lungs
- a collapsed lung
- growths in the pleural cavity between the lungs
The treatment for pleuritis depends on the underlying cause. Some potential treatment options include:
- antibiotics to treat bacterial causes
- surgery to fix a collapsed lung or remove growths from the pleural cavity
- medications to stop existing blood clots from getting bigger and prevent new clots from forming
It may not always be possible to prevent some causes of chest pain. However, people can take steps to reduce the risk of chest pain due to heart disease.
The CDC provide the following tips for reducing the risk of heart disease:
A person should see a doctor if they experience repeat episodes of chest pain, regardless of whether other symptoms are present. Recurrent bouts of chest pain may indicate an underlying health issue, such as a problem with the heart or lungs.
A person should phone the emergency services if they experience any of the symptoms of a heart attack or have an episode of angina that persists for 5 minutes or more following a second dose of angina medication.
Experiencing an intermittent sharp stabbing pain in the chest can be worrying. A one-off bout of mild chest pain that passes quickly is unlikely to be a cause for concern. However, severe, prolonged, or recurrent chest pain may be a sign of an underlying medical condition that requires treatment.
A person should see their doctor if they are concerned about chest pain or experience symptoms of a heart or lung condition.
Anyone who experiences symptoms of a heart attack should phone the emergency services. Prompt treatment can reduce the risk of further complications and may even save a person’s life.