Chest Pain: Is It Always a Symptom of Heart Attack?

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Is chest pain always a symptom of heart attack? How can one prevent chest pain?

Pain is the body's natural response to a bodily harm which may be somatic or visceral. Somatic pain refers to pain experienced on skin, muscle, joints, bones and ligaments. Visceral pain, on the hand, refers to pain felt in the internal body organs and main body cavities namely the thorax, abdomen and the pelvis. The organs found in the thorax are the lungs and heart, in the abdomen are the bowels, spleen, liver and kidneys, and in the pelvis are the ovaries, bladder and the womb. 

It is easy to locate somatic pain but visceral pain is more difficult to pinpoint. It may be a cramping sensation or a vague deep ache. Visceral pain may also be experienced as some type of back pain.

The location of the pain may not always be a problem in the specific bodily part. This is termed as referred pain. This is when pain is felt either next to, or at a distance from the origin of an injury or affected body organ. Heart attack, for example, may be felt as pain around the shoulders, back and neck, rather than the chest.

Chest Pain

Chest pain is a difficult symptom to diagnose. Even a medical professional can have difficulty finding out the cause and whether the chest pain is life threatening. Modern medical equipment, however, help detect the cause and provide the doctor with a better way of judging what to do with the affected patient. In some cases, however, chest pain is a symptom that can be life threatening. It would allow only minutes of intervention to save the life of a victim especially those who had a heart attack.

Chest pain does not exclusively mean that the heart is affected. Chest pain can originate from any part of the body namely the heart, lungs, esophagus, muscle, bone, and skin. As mentioned above, chest pain may be referred pain. It may actually originate from another part of the body.

Chest pain location and causes

Sources and locations of different chest pain and causes (Source)

Causes of Chest Pain

The cause of chest pain are varied and many. Among those identified are the following:

1. Heart attack

Heart attack or medically known as acute myocardial infarction (AMI) occurs when blood flow to the blood vessels of the heart becomes blocked. When this happens, the muscle of the heart can no longer receive enough oxygen and may cause damage or death of the heart muscle. The heart can no longer sustain blood flow through the body, depriving the different parts of the body of oxygen and nutrients that sustain life. Heart attack ensues.

2. Angina

Angina is less life threatening than heart attack. This is related to an imbalance between the oxygen demand of the heart and the amount of oxygen actually delivered by the blood. The arteries are not completely blocked and cause little or no permanent damage to the heart. It may go away with rest.

3. Aortic dissection

Aortic dissection means a tear in the inner lining of the aorta, the main blood vessel that supplies blood to the vital organs of the body, took place. This can cause massive internal bleeding and interrupt blood flow to the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and intestines.

4. Pulmonary embolism

Pulmonary or lung embolism is a blood clot in one of the major blood vessels that supplies the lungs. It is also a life-threatening cause of chest pain.

5. Spontaneous pneumothorax.

Spontaneous pneumothorax or collapsed lung occurs when air enters the space between the chest wall and the lung tissue. This results to imbalance in pressure which prevents the lungs to expand. The inability of the lungs to expand will reduce oxygen availability in the body. Thus, this condition is also life-threatening because it would take only 5 minutes or less for the body to live without oxygen.

6. Perforated viscus

Perforation means a tear or hole. Perforated viscus refers to a hole or tear in the wall of the stomach and the intestines. When this happens, air enters the open spaces in the abdomen and irritates it, causing chest pain.

How to Avoid Chest Pain

To avoid chest pain, certain steps must be made to address the causes. Although some of the causes may be genetic in origin, there are desired lifestyle changes that must be made to prevent chest pain.

Here is a list of eleven lifestyle changes that can prevent chest pain:

1. Never take stimulants. 

Stimulants like cocaine causes the blood vessels in the body to constrict which can decrease blood flow to the heart leading to heart attack.

2. Maintain blood pressure.

Blood pressure can be maintained through a correct diet to prevent cholesterol build up and diabetes. Some lifestyle tips on how to keep your blood pressure down can be found here.

3. Stop smoking.

It is generally recognized that smoking is bad for one's health. Medical research revealed that women who use birth control pills and smoke cigarettes are at higher risk than women who have only one or neither of these risk factors (especially over the age of 35). Adapt a new lifestyle to get rid of stress in lieu of smoking. Exercise is best.

4. Avoid alcohol.

Drink alcohol moderately if your lifestyle requires it. Moderate means not having to experience the drowsiness and numbness of taking too much alcohol. If you are unsure what's moderate, better not take alcohol at all.

5. Be conscious of what you eat and drink and maintain your weight.

The risk of heart attack is greater for those who eat and drink indiscriminately. Your drinks may contain harmful ingredients for all you know. It pays to watch out what's in your diet and maintain a weight corresponding to your body frame. Your diet may be full of cholesterol that's harmful to your body.

6. Live free of worry.

Worrying can lead to emotional stress. Life is meant to be enjoyed not suffered. Why worry when you can choose not to worry. Hear are four tips to get rid of worry effectively.

7. Be active.

A sedentary lifestyle refers to a type of lifestyle with no or irregular physical activity. A person who lives this kind of life is popularly known as a couch potato. These are people who like to watch television and eat a lot of junk foods. If you are this type of person, get up and engage in physical activity or exercise for at least 30 minutes every day. It will burn your fat and cholesterol out. Some treadmills show how much calories you burned every time you use it. Record it and find out your progress.

8. Avoid excessive coughing.

Excessive coughing or sneezing can rupture due to stretched lung tissues and abnormal air sacs in the lungs of very thin and tall people.

9. Don't miss your meals.

Eating your meals regularly, especially cholesterol-free foods, can prevent peptic ulcers which can tear your stomach or intestines. But avoid lying down immediately after eating or eating three hours before bedtime to prevent esophageal disease.

10. Wash your hands well.

Washing your hands well especially when you got to places that are unhealthy or places where many people frequent can help reduce the transmission of infectious viruses and bacteria. This will prevent lung-related causes of chest pain.

11. Have a regular medical check-up.

Having a regular medical check-up can help you avert potential life-threatening condition. It will also relieve you of worry that you might have a heart attack.

In general, chest pain can be prevented by living a lifestyle which is healthy. A healthy lifestyle is a lifestyle that is adhering to an ideal diet, stress or worry-free and vigilant action to prevent the onset of diseases like heart attack.


Medilexicon International Ltd., 2009. What is pain? What causes pain. Retrieved on June11, 2010 at

Cunha, J. P. and M. C. Stoppler, 2008. Chest pain. Retrieved on June 11, 2010 at


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