What Is the Cause of Sharp Chest Pain? Know When You Need to Call 911A sharp chest pain is one of the very most frightening of all health symptoms. Even a doctor may find it difficult to know what is causing the chest pain and whether it is a threat to life.
The Basic Rule about Sharp Chest Pain and Calling 911That is why the basic rule about whether you need to call for emergency medical care is very simple:
If you experience severe squeezing, pressure, crushing, or pain in your chest that lasts for more than three minutes, or if you have any kind of pain that moves from your chest into your arm, neck, left shoulder, or jaw, call 911 (or your local emergency number) for an ambulance to carry you to the nearest hospital emergency room. Do not drive yourself. If an ambulance is not available, wait for care to arrive, or have a trusted family member or friend take you.
Does Sharp Chest Pain Really Originate in the Chest?The reason that chest pain is so hard for the doctor to diagnose is that chest pain can originate in any part of the chest. It can begin in the heart, the lungs, the esophagus, bone, muscle, or skin. And because of the way nerves from all over the body converge at the chest, pain in the chest may actually originate in another part of the body. The stomach, for example, or the abdomen, can be the source of pain that is perceived as originating in the chest.
When Is Sharp Chest Pain a Sign of a Life-Threatening Condition?Everybody knows that chest pain is a frequent symptom of heart attack (although a "silent" heart attack does not cause chest pain). Heart attack, however, is not the only potentially deadly source of sharp and sudden chest pain. Here are just a few of the other possibilities.
1. Angina is a kind of chest pain that results from an imbalance between the amount of oxygen the heart needs and the amount of oxygen the bloodstream can deliver. The usual cause of angina is a blockage or narrowing of the blood vessels that supply the heart, but Prinzmetal's angina is caused by a kind of "migraine" of the heart, in which those blood vessels tighten and narrow even without cholesterol deposits. Stable angina is predictable. It occurs after exercise and goes away after rest. Unstable angina causes unpredictable chest pain that may occur during rest, even when there has been no exercise.
2. Aortic dissection is a tear in the lining of the artery, or a tear in the tissues that hold the artery in place. The artery may or may not require surgery, but it is utterly essential lower high blood pressure. Medical attention is essential.
3. Heart attack occurs when part of the heart does not receive oxygen at all. Heart tissue can actually survive loss of oxygen—the real damage usually occurs with reperfusion, the sudden return of oxygenated blood flow that "burns out" the previously hibernating cells. When this happens, healthy tissue is later replaced with scar tissue. Prompt treatment, of course, minimizes damage.
4. Pulmonary embolism is a blood clot in the blood vessels that serve the lungs. Although a pulmonary embolism does not involve the heart, it can be quickly fatal.
5. Spontaneous pneumothorax is a condition colloquially referred to as a collapsed lung. When air enters the space between the lung and the chest wall, the lungs cannot generate the reduced pressure needed to draw air inside. This condition, usually caused by a broken rib that punctures the lung, is also quickly fatal.
The bottom line about the treatment of sudden chest pain is very simple: See a doctor right away! Speedy treatment may not only save your life, it can make a happier and healthier life possible for many years to come.