Emergency room or a chill pill? What is that sudden stabbing pain that lasts only a few seconds? Or that pressure on the chest that won’t go away and feels like it’s getting worse? A heart attack, heartburn or something else? Dramatic questions like these bring people to emergency rooms or doctors’ offices by the thousands every year. The stress caused by chest pains and severe discomfort in the area around the heart can be acute, and fear of the worst in fact augments the symptoms and brings on additional ones, such as sweating, dizziness, racing heart beat, and more.
But how can we tell when to seek emergency treatment and when to simply lay down and relax? Pain or severe discomfort centered around the heart can be caused by literally dozens of conditions, from pancreatitis, to pneumonia, to an anxiety attack. Given the variety of causes, some of which carry a lethal risk, it is not surprising that most people choose to consult a doctor. In fact, it may be the wisest thing to do, unless pain and discomfort subside in just a few minutes.
The most accurate (but slow) way to determine whether a person has experienced a heart attack is a blood test that identifies creatine kinase and cardiac troponin, chemical markers that appear in the blood stream when the heart muscle has sustained some damage. A faster (but less accurate) method is an electrocardiogram (ECG). The third method (the most immediately available but least accurate) is the person’s own description of the chest pain and any other symptoms to an emergency room physician.
The Harvard Medical Letter describes the following symptoms as generally indicating a condition other than a heart attack, including anxiety or stress:
- sharp or knifelike pain brought on by breathing or coughing
- sudden stabbing pain that lasts only a few seconds
- pain clearly on one side or another
- pain confined to one small spot
- pain that lasts for many hours or days without any other symptoms
- pain produced by pressing on the chest or with body movements.
These symptoms may not require a visit to the emergency room, especially if they resolve within a few minutes. When they persist longer, a doctor’s visit would be necessary to identify their exact cause and take the appropriate remedies.
On the other hand, the following symptoms may indicate a stronger likelihood that a heart attack is in progress and should be taken much more seriously:
- sensation of pain, or of pressure, tightness, squeezing, or burning
- the gradual onset of pain over the course of a few minutes over a diffuse area, including the middle of the chest, and its persistence
- pain that extends to the left arm, neck, jaw, or back
- pain or pressure accompanied by other signs, such as difficulty breathing, a cold sweat, or sudden nausea
- pain or pressure that appears during or after physical exertion, or emotional stress, or while at rest.
The appearance of these symptoms would more clearly warrant a 911 call.