Sharp Chest Pain: When Is It a Real Emergency?Sharp chest pain is one of the most frightening medical symptoms. Associated with heart attacks, chest pain is the single most common reason people call for an ambulance to get taken to the emergency room.
But sharp pain does not always mean there is a heart attack, and, especially for women, most heart attacks do not cause sharp pain. Here is what you need to know about chest pain and the likelihood of truly serious health conditions.
1. Heart pain is likely to be continuous, dull, and vague, and accompanied by other symptomsThe common image of a heart attack is a man clutching his upper left chest in unbearable pain, but pain that actually originates in the heart is more likely to be dull. Pain that originates in the part is likely to accompanied by pressure, and preceded by insomnia, fatigue, stomach upset, and other vague symptoms for as long as 3 to 4 weeks—especially in women, who usually do not experience any chest pain at all during a heart attack. If you can point to your chest and tell your doctor "It hurts there," the origin of your pain is probably not your heart.
2. Any pain that is tingly, stinging, sharp, and brief—15 seconds or less—is not likely to be due to a heart problem. A sharp pain below the nipple is almost never due to a problem in the heartBut just because it is not heart pain does not mean the pain is not serious. In fact, there are conditions that cause chest pain that are even more immediately life-threatening than a heart attack.
Here are some examples.1. Pain on one side of the chest after a crushing injury, accompanied by difficultly breathing, may indicate pneumothorax. In this condition, the lung has been punctured and air has accumulated in the cavity between the lung and the chest wall. This condition makes breathing quickly impossible.
2. Women of reproductive age who take oral contraceptives are at relatively higher risk for pulmonary embolism. This is a clot in a blood vessel serving the lung.
3. Sharp chest pain after exercise may be a sign of stable angina, a condition in which the blood vessels are narrowed (either by atherosclerosis or a kind of "migraine" affecting just the coronary artery) so that they cannot provide blood to the heart. Sharp chest pain occurring at rest may be a sign of the even more dangerous unstable angina.
4. And chest pain can result from heartburn, food poisoning, allergies, torn muscles, and depression.
The bottom line about sharp chest pain is that if it lasts for more than a few seconds, you need to see your doctor right away. Don't drive yourself to the emergency room if you may have had a heart attack. Remember that extra minutes at a critical time can save you years of suffering later.