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chest pain

Alternative Names
thoracic pain, chest wall pain

The chest is the area where the heart and lungs are located. These organs are protected by the rib cage and breastbone. Many different conditions can cause pain in the chest.

What is going on in the body?
Chest pain is a common complaint. In adults, it is often a cause for concern because it can signal a heart attack. However, many conditions ranging from a pulled muscle to pneumonia can also cause chest pain.

What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?
Chest pain symptoms are related to the underlying cause of the pain. The person's description of the pain can be helpful to the doctor in determining its source. Questions the doctor may ask include:
  • What is the exact location of the pain?
  • What is the quality of the pain: dull, sharp, pressure-like, stabbing, or throbbing?
  • How severe is the pain on a scale of 1 to 10?
  • When did the pain start?
  • What was the person doing when the pain started?
  • How long has the pain lasted? If the pain has stopped, when did it stop or how often has the person experienced this pain?
  • Does the pain travel outside the chest or through to the back?
  • Do other symptoms occur with the pain such as nausea, sweating, or shortness of breath?
What are the causes and risks of the condition?
The are many different causes for chest pain. These include: Other causes are also possible. In some cases, the cause is never found.

What can be done to prevent the condition?
Prevention depends on the underlying cause of the chest pain. For example, avoiding overexertion can prevent muscle strain. In many cases chest pain cannot be prevented.

How is the condition diagnosed?
Individuals can determine for themselves that they have chest pain. It is the doctor's job to find the cause of the pain. The doctor will perform a physical examination and take a medical history. Sometimes the cause of the chest pain can be uncovered from this alone. Further testing may be ordered based on the history and physical. This may include chest x-rays, blood and urine tests, and a heart tracing called an electrocardiogram (ECG).

What are the long-term effects of the condition?
The long-term effects are related to the underlying cause of the chest pain. For example, a heart attack may result in heart failure or death. The pain itself may cause discomfort severe enough prevent sleeping and other activities.

What are the risks to others?
Chest pain itself poses no risks to others. However, a person's chest pain may be due to a contagious infection such as pneumonia.

What are the treatments for the condition?
Treatment is directed at the underlying cause of the chest pain. For example, a person with an infection such as pneumonia is treated with antibiotics. A person with aortic dissection may need surgery. Analgesics can be given to control pain. In some cases this is the only option since the underlying cause cannot be treated. An example of this situation would be a person with chest pain due to lung cancer. Analgesics such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and narcotics may be ordered.

What are the side effects of the treatments?
All medications have possible side effects. For example, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can cause allergic reactions and stomach upset. Narcotics can cause nausea, constipation and allergic reactions. Other side effects are also possible, depending on the medication used. Surgery carries the risks of bleeding, infection and allergic reactions to analgesics. More specific side effects depend on the surgery performed.

What happens after treatment for the condition?
If the underlying cause is treated, the chest pain will usually go away. Some people may need ongoing analgesia. This would be the case for people with arthritis.

How is the condition monitored?
Affected people can monitor their own chest pain and how well it responses to treatment. Chest pain can be a serious symptom and should not be ignored. Those with severe chest pain or known heart disease should go to the nearest hospital for evaluation of the pain.

Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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