Heart Health

When Chest Pain Isn’t a Heart Attack

February 22, 2022

When Chest Pain Isn’t a Heart Attack

“The good news: It’s not your heart. The bad news: I don’t have a clue what it is.” The first half of this statement is heard every day in emergency rooms and doctors’ offices across the country.  The second half may involve a little more honesty than most doctors want to admit. You come to the ER with chest pain worried that it might be your heart.  They hang on to you for a few hours, do several tests, and conclude that your worst fears—that you’re in the throes of a massive heart attack or something similar—are not founded.

The job of the ER doctor in this scenario is really two-fold.  First, determine if you have a life-threatening emergency and, if so, initiate treatment.  Second, if your symptoms aren’t the harbinger of certain doom, the ER doctor has to come up with a diagnosis to give you and to put on the chart.  The first part of this equation is actually pretty easy in most situations—we have well-established algorithms to guide the evaluation and exclusion of a relatively short list of dangerous things that can cause chest pain.

It’s the second part—if it’s not your heart, then what is it?—that is the real challenge.  Most doctors will offer a diagnosis, but in many cases it’s their best effort at a blind guess.  You can’t really blame them for trying.  No doctor wants an unsatisfied patient and, of course, no patient wants to go home without a diagnosis, especially after seeing how much they owe in co-pay.  It’d be like taking your car to auto mechanic who charges you a thousand dollars only to tell you “Well, it isn’t your transmission.”

Urgent Causes of Chest Pain

So, if the chest pain isn’t coming from a blocked artery, what exactly is it?  We first rule out other potentially life-threatening or immediately reversible ailments.  Most of these are fairly easy to detect with simple screening tests or discernible based on the patient’s account of their symptoms:

  • Aortic dissection.  A tearing or rupture of the aorta that comes spontaneously (most often in patients with a history of high blood pressure) and is lethal in about 50% of cases.
  • Pulmonary embolism.  A blood clot, generally arising in the veins of the legs, lodges in the arteries of the lungs. Chest pain, shortness of breath, and cough are clues to this problem. It is fatal (if untreated) in about a quarter of patients.
  • Spontaneous pneumothorax.  This is a relatively rare problem where the lung deflates without apparent cause.  It is easily detected on chest x-ray. While not as deadly as other problems, it needs to be treated relatively quickly.
  • Pneumonia.  This one doesn’t really fall into the “urgent” category like the others, but it is serious and the diagnosis needs to be entertained in patients with chest pain.

Noncardiac Esophageal Pain

This is a broad category of painful problems relating to a structure that sits right behind the heart. It is served by the same pain nerves as the cardiac muscle. Esophageal reflux, spasms, hernias, and other conditions can mimic with protean precision all the symptoms of a heart attack.  Spasm, in particular, can be challenging since it also responds quite quickly to administration of nitroglycerin (this is partially why a positive response to nitroglycerin is utterly useless in helping us isolate the cause of discomfort).  About 60% of patients with chest pain will have an esophageal problem as the source.

Noncardiac Pain in the Ribs

The area where the ribs attach to the sternum (breastbone) and can be afflicted with inflammation and joint aches just like the knee, hip, and any other skeletal junction of the body.  Pain in this area can mimic angina, but can also be tender to touch and worse with movement or deep breathing.  Mostly, though, it leads to no dangerous problems.  As you muse over health problems with acquaintances at cocktail parties, you may wish to invoke the more exotic moniker of Tietze Syndrome when referring to your ills.  Your friends will be more impressed as they take a step back from you and wipe their hands on their pants.

Inflamed Lungs Causing Chest Pain

Inflammation of the lining of the lung can lead to severe, stabbing pain anywhere in the chest; this is called pleurisy. It’s most often exacerbated by deep breaths and body movement.  There’s no test to pinpoint this. The diagnosis is made based on the description of pain and the absence of other problems. Treatment consists of anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen.  Pleurisy’s cousin is inflammation of the lining of the heart (pericarditis) and can present with similar symptoms.

Other Causes of Chest Pain

  • Shingles – Early in the course of this demonic ailment a patient will have severe focal pain and tenderness days before the characteristic rash appears.  Successful treatment depends on early suspicion and administration of antiviral drugs. Clinicians need to keep this disease in mind when seeing older patients with chest pain limited to one side.
  • Muscle strain – At some point in their lives virtually every person will pull a muscle and suffer pain for a few days or longer.  There are dozens of muscles that attach to the chest wall (including layers of muscles that bind the ribs together) and any one of them could serve as the source of significant discomfort.
  • Somatic causes – Somatic is a polite, professional way of saying it’s all in your head.  It’s well known that depression, anxiety, and panic attacks can cause a patient to experience all the symptoms of a heart attack.  This was first described as a cause of chest pain among veterans of the American Civil War by a doctor named Jacob Mendes Da Costa who observed these symptoms in patients whose psyche had been ravaged by the stress of war (Da Costa syndrome is also termed “soldier’s heart”).  In my experience this sort of thing can affect all types of people.  Personally, I resist the urge to make the diagnosis of “stress-related” pain since I don’t remotely consider myself an expert in psychiatry or stress disorders.

Chest Pain Can Be Difficult to Diagnose

One thing that all these benign causes of chest pain have in common is that they are extremely difficult to diagnose with any degree of certainty.  Most often we arrive at these conclusions by excluding other, more easily diagnosed problems.  Modern medicine is very good at telling you what you don’t have and not so good at pinning down what you’ve got, especially if it doesn’t lead to death or permanent impairment.

So, breathe easy (that is, if it doesn’t hurt to take a deep breath) if the doctor tells you it isn’t your heart—that is indeed good news.  Just be prepared for a little frustration if you want to find someone who can definitively tell you what it is rather than just what it isn’t.

Original post date: April 2010. Revised: June 2019; February 2022; January 2023

  1. iridium

    Two years ago, my mom had an heart surgery, nothing was informed to me but somehow looking through the reports of that surgery, I found that her blood vessel were contracted and the operation was conducted to expand them by a process called Angioplasty. And recently, four months ago, She again visited the same hospital for a regular cardiac check. This time the blood vessel had contracted a bit. Are there more chances for the blood vessel to contract? Are there any more risks. Going through wikipedia and other internet resources I found that there are some risks like Arrhythmia, some renal problems, bleeding etc. She is 42 years of age. Is she prone to these problems? And how can she prevent them?

  2. Dr. Van De Graaff

    Thanks for the question and thanks for turning to our website for information. I'm sorry to hear your mother has had heart problems. Perhaps I can explain her situation a bit (based on what you've given me). Angioplasty (PTCA) consists of expanding a balloon inside the blocked artery. It's a relatively crude procedure that simply widens the pathway for blood to traverse. Up until the late 1990s this was the only procedure available in the United States for opening a coronary narrowing and is still used on occasion here nowadays. Most of the time in the U.S. a stent is used in conjunction with the angioplasty. Please refer to my post from Feb 22, 2010 for more details on this (http://www.blogalegent.com/Cardiology-Stents) Your mother will likely do well with her coronary arteries. From our "pre-stent" days in the nineties, we know that every patient who undergoes angioplasty will have some "restenosis," or narrowing, (contraction, as you put it) within the first few months. About 30% (more or less depending on many factors) of patients will have restenosis to such a degree that they will need a repeat angioplasty. That's the bad news. The good news is that the process of restenosis is generally completed by about the 4-6 month mark. In other words, if the blockage that was the angioplasty target is open by the 6-month point it will likely stay open indefinitely. Your mother likely had most of her "contraction" within the first few months and her vessel is now very stable. It is unlikely that she will incur any more narrowing to that one spot. However, for her to have coronary narrowing by the age of 40 (when she had her first angioplasty) means that she has a very strong predilection for vascular disease in other spots of her heart circulation. To avoid this she needs to focus on doing the things she can to modify her risk of more problems: no smoking, good activity and diet, appropriate use of medications such as aspirin and statin drugs (whichever statin drugs--pravastatin, lovastatin, simvastatin--are available in Nepal). Arrhythmia, renal problems and bleeding can all be risks of the angioplasty procedure itself but don't pose much of a risk to your mother now that she is finished with this. I wish you and your mother the best of luck and the best of health. I hope this response has helped. Dr. VDG

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