While chest discomfort, such as stabbing pain that comes and goes, can indicate a heart problem, it can also occur due to heart burn and muscle strain.

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.

This article outlines some of the possible causes of intermittent stabbing chest pain, along with their associated symptoms and treatments. It also provides tips on preventing certain causes of chest pain and explains when to contact a doctor.

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A heart attack is damage to the heart muscle due to a severe shortage or complete blockage of blood flow to the heart muscle. Chest discomfort is a symptom that may be seen with a heart attack.

However, in heart attacks, the discomfort is typically described as a pressure or squeezing sensation. A fleeting sharp sensation is less likely to be caused by coronary blockages.

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
  • sweating
  • sudden nausea or vomiting
  • feelings of dread

Heart attack pain generally lasts for more than a few 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) notes 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 a procedure 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:

Learn about natural ways to reduce the symptoms of GERD.

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:


A doctor may recommend taking an OTC anti-inflammatory medication, such as colchicine, ibuprofen or aspirin.

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
  • nausea
  • breathlessness
  • fatigue

Angina is a symptom due to obstruction of blood flow in the coronary arteries, which can lead to 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 of nitroglycerin 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:

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 occurs when a person is resting or shifting positions. The pain usually lasts between 30 seconds to 3 minutes. Once gone, it leaves no lasting symptoms.

The cause of PCS is unknown. However, it may be due to muscular spasms, which irritate or compress nerve fibers in the pleura or rib cage.


PCS typically does not require treatment, and it causes no negative health effects. However, a person should contact a healthcare professional for an assessment to rule out more serious conditions.

Certain maneuvers, such as sitting upright and gentle chest massage, may help ease symptoms.

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
  • sweating
  • trembling or shaking
  • sensations of numbness or tingling
  • feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • stomach discomfort
  • nausea
  • feelings of dread
  • fear of losing control
  • fear of dying


Symptoms of a panic attack can mimic a heart attack, so a person should contact a medical professional for an evaluation.

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

Learn more about panic attacks and panic disorders.

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:

  • breathing
  • coughing
  • sneezing

Pleuritis can occur as a result of the following:


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 provides the following tips for reducing the risk of heart disease:

  • quitting smoking, if applicable
  • engaging in regular exercise
  • eating a well-balanced and varied diet
  • reaching or maintaining a moderate weight
  • controlling blood pressure and cholesterol
  • managing any underlying health conditions

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.

The following are frequently asked questions about chest pain.

Why do I get a sharp pain in my chest for a few seconds?

There are many causes of chest pain, some of which can be severe.

While sharp, fleeting pain in the chest is not as likely to be a result of a heart attack, inflammation in the heart lining (pericarditis) and pleuritis can cause sharp chest pain. These can have serious complications.

It is important to have chest pain evaluated by a medical professional who can help diagnose the problem.

Is it normal to feel a stabbing pain in your chest?

Chest pain has many causes, some of which can be serious and life threatening. Stabbing pain in the chest is not as likely to be due to a heart attack, but other serious conditions like pericarditis can cause sharp chest pain.

Anyone with new or worsening chest pain should contact a doctor.

What causes sharp pain in the left side of the chest that comes and goes?

Although unlikely, sharp pain in the left side of the chest can be a sign of a heart attack. Heart attack pain usually lasts for more than a few minutes. It may also go away and then return. Sharp pain in the chest can also indicate other conditions, such as pericarditis.

A person experiencing chest pain should contact a doctor.

What causes sharp pain on the right side of the chest?

There are many reasons a person can experience right-sided chest pain. It can result from muscle strain, digestive problems, injury, cardiovascular disease, lung conditions, or other health conditions that require medical attention.

Learn more about the causes of right-sided chest pain.

Experiencing intermittent sharp stabbing pain in the chest can be worrying. A one-off bout of mild chest pain that lasts only for a few seconds 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.