Sharp chest pain that comes on suddenly can be a frightening experience, especially if you don’t know the cause. It may be the result of a minor issue, or it could point to a more serious underlying condition or a medical emergency.
Most people think of a heart attack when faced with sudden chest pain; a heart attack is the result of a blocked artery, which reduces the amount of blood flowing through the heart muscle, starving the muscle of oxygen. The pain of a heart attack is usually severe and is felt in the center or on the left side of the chest, and rest doesn’t alleviate it; the pain may also be accompanied by shortness of breath, lightheadedness, nausea, sweating, and weakness. The pain can last up to 15 minutes, however, not all heart attacks are painful – but there are usually signs leading up to it in the days or weeks before. Episodes of chest pain set off by physical activity, pain radiating through the neck, jaw, and shoulders, or a strong sense of pressure or squeezing in the chest can all indicate a heart attack.
Angina, a condition which is also caused by reduced blood flow to the heart, is another potential cause of sudden chest pain, although it’s usually diagnosed along with heart disease. Angina can often be differentiated from the pain of a heart attack because it doesn’t come with the tight pressure on the chest. Stable angina is recurrent and fairly predictable, so it may not alarm you, but unstable angina comes on quickly and may signal a coming heart attack, especially if it’s accompanied by anxiety, dizziness, nausea, or shortness of breath.
A pulmonary embolism is a life-threatening issue: a clot forms, usually in the legs or pelvis, and makes its way to the pulmonary artery in the lung, blocking the blood flow to the lung and making it difficult to breathe. The sudden, sharp pain of an embolism comes with difficulty breathing – although in some cases, you may experience shortness of breath without chest pain – a rapid heartbeat, severe anxiety, and a cough, which may also produce some blood.
Sudden chest pain may simply be the result of anxiety, strain from physical exertion, or the result of digestion issues, but if the pain lasts more than a few minutes, it’s safer to seek immediate medical attention than attempting to self-diagnose. An exam by a medical professional is the only way to accurately diagnose severe chest pain.