Between Valentine’s Day and American Heart Month, it’s pretty impossible not to think about your body’s hardest working organ during February. But whether you celebrated Valentine’s Day, Galentine’s Day or Singles Awareness Day this year, it’s time for some straight talk about your ticker. About 720,000 Americans have a heart attack every single year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To put that into perspective, that’s about 80,000 more than the population of Seattle.
In most cases, a heart attack comes on suddenly and can be very intense, with chest pain and/or pressure starting in the center of the chest and radiating to other parts of the body like the jaw, shoulder, back, neck and stomach, says Rani Whitfield, MD, a family practitioner in Baton Rouge, LA, and national American Heart Association volunteer spokesperson. Some people experience extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea and lightheadedness. If you recognize any of these signs, call 911 immediately.
But did you know that noncardiac chest pain (NCCP) affects up to 25 percent of the adult population in the U.S, too? Check out these four causes of chest pain you may not have heard about before — and learn why you should still seek medical attention if you suspect they’re to blame for your pangs.
4 Unexpected Causes of Chest Pain
1. Acid Reflux. The most common cause of NCCP is gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), says Dr. Whitfield. GERD is a chronic digestive disease where stomach acid flows up into the esophagus, causing irritation, which can be more painful after a meal. “But keep in mind that disorders of the esophagus and heart disease or heart attacks can co-exist,” says Dr. Whitfield. That’s why it’s important to see your doctor, even if you’re fairly certain you can pinpoint the problem on the tacos you ate at dinner.
2. Depression and Anxiety. If something has you feeling down, it may feel like your heart is actually physically breaking. Depression can cause people to experience chest pain, but it’s not typically associated with heart problems. Anxiety, the worry-based cousin of depression, also frequently presents itself in the body as chest pain, says cardiologist Stephen T. Sinatra, MD, FACC, founder of the Heart MD Institute. “I’ve often told my patients to breathe into the chest discomfort to see if it goes away,” says Dr. Sinatra. “But when in doubt, I would always tell them to go to a medical facility especially if the chest pain did not dissipate quickly. It is also important to note that any heart attack is also accompanied by major anxiety as well.”
3. Pulled Chest Muscles. Pushing and pulling heavy objects like furniture, vacuuming and even doing twisted yoga poses (when you aren’t quite flexible enough) can strain muscles in your chest wall and cause discomfort you might mistake for heart pains, says Dr. Sinatra. “Many times it may take manipulation, trigger point massage, topical remedies, cold laser therapy or ice followed by heat to help these people recover.”
“If you are experiencing chest pain during a workout, stop, let someone know, and call 911.”
4. Breast Cysts. Chest pain may actually be breast pain, in some cases. Fluctuating levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone during a woman’s menstrual cycle can cause “fibrocycstic breast changes,” or breast cysts, explains Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Yale School of Medicine. These non-cancerous breast lumps will usually go away after a woman gets her period, but can be drained if they get too painful.
“Indeed, many women do get periodic breast pain, and indeed many women can confuse it for cardiac-related discomfort,” says Dr. Minkin. “Unfortunately, the opposite can also occur. Many women who get atypical chest pain, which is cardiac in origin, think it’s breast related.” So, even if you feel like your cleavage is the culprit, get it checked out. You’ll likely get peace of mind after a physical exam, and possibly an ultrasound.
Experiencing Chest Pain During a Workout?
Yes, your workouts should feel challenging, but chest pain during a workout is never normal, Dr. Whitfield says. “If you are experiencing chest pain during a workout, stop, let someone know, and call 911. If you exercise regularly and experience extreme fatigue or shortness of breath that is atypical for you, these could also be warning signs of underlying heart disease.”
If you do experience discomfort, and find it isn’t heart-related, it could be due to one of the triggers above. Regardless, it’s always a good idea to see your doctor to get to the heart of the issue as soon as possible.