Back On Track Health: When it’s not a heart attack

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by Warren Heggarty

In December and March Quarterly Panorama, we featured stories about Heart Attack, signs to look for and action to take. In this BOTH article we briefly look at OTHER types of chest pain. Some of these can be mistaken for a heart attack, but don’t let that put you off getting help. It is better to be safe than sorry.  If you need detailed information always consult a Doctor, who can take your individual needs into account. 

Chest pain has a number of causes, some of which may be minor, such as indigestion. Other more serious causes can include pulmonary embolism (blood clot on the lung). (WA Health)

There are many different sources of chest pain, the heart being just one of them.

Commonly, the digestive system is to blame. Indigestion and gastric reflux caused by stomach acid coming back up from the stomach into the throat can produce a nasty burning sensation in the chest. The solution here is usually to be careful not only WHAT you eat but HOW you eat. Chewing food thoroughly will help. This is difficult if you have problems with your teeth but a dentist can help out here. Eating too much too close to bedtime can bring on reflux, too. 

Chest pain may also be the result of muscles, bones and related tissue. Sprains and strains or even fractures in the ribs can be responsible for pain. 

Shingles is quite painful and often affects the chest and abdomen. It is caused by the same virus as Chicken Pox, usually affecting older people after having lain dormant for years. It usually affects a particular “dermatome” or zone of the skin fed by a major nerve coming from the spine. This is often accompanied by a rash in the effected area.  See your doctor.


A pulmonary embolism, or a blood clot in the lung, often causes sudden, sharp and severe pain that might become worse when breathing in. Another common sign of blood clots is severe weakness and getting puffed out by very little. Either way, it needs urgent medical attention.

Chest infections such as pneumonia can cause pain when breathing. Sometimes a continuous cough over several days can become painful, not to mention exhausting, even while we seem to be recovering. Parts of your chest may become sore to the touch when you have a chest infection or you may feel pain when coughing or sneezing. It is best to get symptoms like this checked out by a doctor to rule out something serious. 

Panic Attack

A tricky one is the panic attack. This is caused by overbreathing (hyperventilation) and sometimes, but not always, severe chest pain results. People sometimes report to Hospital Emergency Departments with suspected heart attacks which fortunately turn out to be panic attacks. Not that panic attacks are pleasant, but they won’t kill you like a panic attack will. 

A medical examination can quickly rule out heart attack if it is actually a panic attack. People who have panic attacks often have an anxiety disorder, or may have experienced an extremely stressful life event.

So the causes of chest pains are many and varied, some are not very dangerous, others (like a blood clot) are very dangerous indeed. 

So it won’t hurt to repeat the information about suspected heart attacks:

If any of the following develop, dial triple zero (000) to call an ambulance:

• chest pain that feels like crushing/choking or like a heavy pressure

• pain radiating to the neck/jaw/shoulder/arm

• nausea/vomiting accompanied by pain

• sweating or clammy to touch

• shortness of breath (WA Health)

Works Cited

WA Health. (n.d.). Chest Pain. Retrieved from Healthy WA Health information for West Australians:


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