Chest pains can be scary, understandably—and you should definitely call 911 if you think you’re in cardiac arrest—but some types of chest pains may have nothing at all to do with your heart.
Severe heartburn may cause a person to wonder in a panic, “Am I having a heart attack?” The symptoms may be confusing, and if you have any doubt, call 911. If, however, you are not at risk for heart attack, and you have reason to believe that the pain you are experiencing is from acid in your esophagus, try taking an antacid. This should soothe the burning pain of indigestion.
Another possible cause of chest pain is shingles, according to Kristine Arthur, MD, an internist at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. Shingles, which are a resurgence of the chicken pox virus in the body, can cause severe pain that radiates around one side of the rib cage. Usually there is a significant rash, however, in some cases, it’s so small that people may not see it. According to Dr. Arthur, “You should suspect shingles if the pain follows the line of a rib and if there are any type of skin changes along the area that hurt. It is almost always only on one side.”
Typically, pancreatitis causes abdominal pain, according to Medicine Net, but pain from pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas, a long flat gland behind the stomach), can radiate into the chest, causing the sufferer to think that the problem is heart-related. You’ll need a medical workup to determine the cause of the pain, as blood work and medical imaging can help your doctor make the proper diagnosis.
Many times a person believing they are having a heart attack is in fact having a panic attack, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Tightening of the chest, heart palpitations, sweaty palms, lightheadedness—these are all symptoms of both. For people suffering from panic disorders, it is a good idea to have a doctor evaluate your heart health, so the next time a panic attack occurs, you will know how to address it without worrying that you’re having a heart attack. Regardless, if there is any doubt during such an attack, go to the ER.
Another possible cause of chest pain that is not a heart attack is costochondritis. According to Dr. Arthur, this is a condition where the cartilage between the ribs becomes inflamed. “The pain can be very sharp and hurt if you take a deep breath. Although it can be present on both sides, it is usually worse on one side,” Dr. Arthur says. A good way to tell if your chest pain may be costochondritis is to lift your arms above your head and see if the pain gets worse, versus heart attack pain, which will persist regardless of motion.