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What causes chest pain?

Chest pain usually refers to pain felt in the upper torso, anywhere between the shoulders and the ribs. If you are experiencing chest pain, it is not something to ignore. It is one of the signs of a heart attack so you should act quickly to at least rule that out. Most people associate chest pain with the heart but it can also have several other causes, including problems with your lungs, ribs, muscles, nerves, infection, and injury.


Angina is the most common symptom of coronary heart disease - the UK’s second biggest killer, causing around 70,000 deaths each year. Angina affects about 2 million people in the UK, with more than 20,000 new cases each year. The British Heart Foundation estimates that 5% of men and 3% of women have angina or have been affected by it in the past.

Symptoms of angina can often be mistaken for indigestion. They include:

  • Chest pain
  • Discomfort
  • Pressure
  • Aching
  • Burning
  • A sensation of fullness or squeezing

Discomfort is most commonly felt in the chest but it can affect the jaw, throat, shoulders, arms, or back. Angina is triggered when blood flow to the heart is reduced, impairing the delivery of oxygen to the heart muscles.

Sometimes angina happens without coronary disease and is caused by:

  • Aortic stenosis - a condition that decreases blood flow to the heart
  • Severe anaemia - when the blood isn’t carrying enough oxygen
  • Thickened heart muscles - muscles don’t receive enough oxygen

If you have been diagnosed with angina your GP may prescribe you:

If you are prescribed glyceryl trinitrate (nitroglycerin) you’ll need to carry it with you at all times. It can be sprayed under the tongue or taken as a tablet.

If you have taken your dose and chest pain continues, call 999 for an ambulance or get someone to take you to the nearest accident and emergency department.

Heart attack

Chest pain is a common symptom of a heart attack. You should seek medical help if:

  • Pain is triggered by physical activity
  • You have squeezing, heavy or tight pressure in the chest
  • You are breathless, nauseous, sweating or pain spreads to arm
  • You are at risk of heart disease - a smoker, have diabetes, are obese or have high cholesterol

If the above symptoms last for more than 15 to 20 minutes, don’t hesitate, get immediate medical help. If you think you or someone else may be having a heart attack, call 999 for emergency services straight away. Don’t wait to see if the pain goes away.

While you wait for the ambulance, the British Red Cross advises you sit the person down and give them a 300mg aspirin tablet to chew. The pill must be chewed before swallowing to make the medicine work quickly.

Chewing an aspirin in the early stages of a heart attack may reduce the risk of death and the severity of the attack.

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