If you have a pain on the left side of your chest, your first thought may be that you’re having a heart attack. While chest pain can indeed be a symptom of heart disease or heart attack, that’s not always the case.

Continue reading as we explore some causes of chest pain, what the accompanying symptoms might be, and what you should do about it.

Left-sided chest pain can be due to a heart attack or other life-threatening condition for which every minute matters. Call your local emergency services if you or someone near you has unexplained left-sided or center chest pain along with:

  • feeling of pressure or tightening of the chest
  • shooting pain in the arms, neck, jaw, back, or abdomen
  • breathing difficulties
  • weakness, lightheadedness, or dizziness
  • nausea or vomiting

Angina is not a disease in itself, but it’s generally a symptom of a heart problem such as coronary heart disease. Angina is the chest pain, discomfort, or pressure you get when your heart muscle isn’t getting enough oxygen from blood. You might also have discomfort in your arms, shoulders, neck, back, or jaw.

It’s crucial that the underlying condition is properly diagnosed and treated. Diagnostic testing may include:

Treatment will depend on the cause, and may include medication, lifestyle changes, and cardiac procedures as necessary.

A heart attack is when the heart muscle is damaged because it can’t get enough oxygen-rich blood. Some heart attacks start with mild chest pain that builds up slowly. They can also start quite abruptly, with intense pain on the left side or center of your chest. Other symptoms of heart attack can include:

  • tightening, squeezing, or crushing pressure in the chest
  • pain in your left arm, though it can also occur in the right arm
  • shooting pain in your neck, jaw, back, or stomach
  • shortness of breath
  • cold sweat
  • heartburn, nausea, or vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • lightheadedness or dizziness

Symptoms of heart attack vary from person to person. The most common symptom in both men and women is chest pain or discomfort. Women are more likely to experience:

  • shortness of breath
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • back or jaw pain

If you or someone near you experiences these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention. With a heart attack, every second counts. The longer the heart muscle is deprived of oxygen, the greater the chances that the damage will be permanent.

Emergency care can begin as soon as medical personnel arrive. After a hospital stay, you may need to continue on medication. Lifestyle modifications should include:

Chest pain can be an indication that your heart muscle is inflamed. Other symptoms include:

  • shortness of breath
  • abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia)
  • fatigue

Myocarditis can affect your heart’s electrical system, weakening your heart or causing permanent damage to the heart muscle.

Mild cases sometimes improve without treatment, but severe cases may require medication. Treatment depends on the cause.

Cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart muscle or enlarged heart. It’s possible to have cardiomyopathy without symptoms, but it can also cause chest pain. Other symptoms are:

  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness
  • heart palpitations
  • swelling of ankles, feet, legs, hands, or abdomen

Treatment involves medications, cardiac procedures, and surgery. Certain lifestyle changes can help, too. These include:

  • reducing salt intake
  • losing excess weight
  • avoiding alcohol
  • engaging in light to moderate exercise on a regular basis

The pericardium is the two thin layers of tissue that surround the heart. When this area becomes inflamed or irritated, it can cause a sharp stabbing pain on the left side or middle of the chest. You might also have pain in one or both shoulders. These symptoms can imitate a heart attack.

It may be mild and even clear up on its own. Treatment depends on the underlying cause.

Panic attacks come on abruptly and tend to peak within 10 minutes. Due to chest pain and other symptoms, a panic attack can simulate a heart attack. In addition to chest pain, some other symptoms are:

  • shortness of breath
  • rapid heartbeat
  • shakiness or dizziness
  • sweating, hot flashes, or chills
  • nausea
  • feelings of unreality or detachment
  • feeling as though you might choke
  • intense fear or sense of doom

If you think you’ve had a panic attack, see your doctor. Other health problems, such as heart and thyroid disorders, can produce similar symptoms, so you want to be certain of the diagnosis.

Panic disorder is a mental health problem that can be treated. Your doctor may recommend psychotherapy. If it’s an ongoing problem, there are some medications that might help.

You might also find it helpful to:

  • practice stress management and relaxation techniques
  • join a support group
  • stay away from caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, and recreational drugs
  • engage in regular physical activity
  • make sure you get a full night’s sleep every night

Heartburn is the chest pain and discomfort you get when digestive acid flows up into your esophagus (acid reflux). You might also have:

  • a burning sensation in your upper abdomen and chest
  • sour taste in your mouth
  • stomach contents flowing up to the back of your throat

Heartburn generally happens fairly soon after you’ve eaten. It can also happen when you lie down within a few hours of eating. It can even wake you from a sound sleep.

Acid reflux can sometimes progress to a more severe form called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The main symptom of GERD is frequent heartburn. In addition to chest pain, GERD can also cause coughing, wheezing, and trouble swallowing.

You can usually ease heartburn with over-the-counter antacids. Your doctor can prescribe a stronger medication if necessary. If you have frequent heartburn, it might help to:

  • eat smaller meals
  • avoid fried or fatty foods
  • avoid alcohol and tobacco
  • lose excess weight

A hiatal hernia is when the upper part of your stomach pushes through the large muscle between your abdomen and chest (diaphragm). Symptoms include:

  • chest pain
  • abdominal pain
  • heartburn
  • regurgitation of food into your mouth

You can ease symptoms by:

You may not need any treatment, but see your doctor if symptoms persist.

Chest pain can mean that there’s something wrong with your esophagus. For example:

  • An esophageal muscle spasm can mimic the same type of chest pain as a heart attack.
  • The lining of your esophagus can become inflamed (esophagitis), causing burning or sharp chest pain. Esophagitis can also cause pain after meals, swallowing problems, and blood in your vomit or stools.
  • An esophageal rupture, or tear, lets food leak into the chest cavity, causing mild to severe chest pain. It can also lead to nausea, vomiting, and rapid breathing.

Treatment depends on cause. An esophageal rupture must be surgically repaired.

Chest pain can be the result of pulled, strained, or sprained muscles in the chest or between the ribs. Any injury to your chest can cause chest pain. This includes:

  • bruising of the chest wall
  • fractured breastbone (sternum)
  • fractured ribs

This type of injury may also cause pain when you take a deep breath or cough.

If you believe you’ve broken a bone, see your doctor right away. It can take weeks to improve and even longer to fully recover. In the meantime, you’ll have to avoid strenuous activity.

Sudden and sharp pain on either side of your chest could be the result of a collapsed lung (pneumothorax). This can be due to disease or from trauma to the chest. Other symptoms are:

  • shortness of breath or rapid breathing
  • skin turning blue
  • cough
  • fatigue

Treatment will depend on the cause, but it’s important to seek medical help immediately.

Sharp or stabbing chest pain that worsens when you take a deep breath or cough could mean you have pneumonia, especially if you’ve recently had a respiratory illness such as bronchitis or influenza.

Other symptoms are:

  • cough, sometimes with mucus
  • fever, chills, or shaking
  • shortness of breath
  • headache
  • loss of appetite
  • fatigue

See your doctor if you think you have pneumonia. In the meantime, get plenty of rest and drink a lot of fluids. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or antivirals. In severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary.

Chest pain can sometimes be a symptom of lung cancer. Other signs and symptoms are:

  • intense coughing, coughing up mucus or blood
  • pain in the shoulder or back, unrelated to pain from coughing
  • shortness of breath
  • recurring bouts of bronchitis or pneumonia
  • loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss

Symptoms may not appear in early-stage lung cancer. In general, the sooner you’re diagnosed and treated, the better the outcome.

Pulmonary hypertension is high blood pressure in the lungs. In addition to chest pain, it can cause:

  • dizziness or fainting
  • shortness of breath
  • loss of energy

As the disease progresses, it can lead to irregular heartbeat and racing pulse. Untreated, it can lead to heart failure.

A sudden, sharp chest pain can be a sign of pulmonary embolism (PE). PE is a blood clot in the lungs. Other symptoms are:

  • back pain
  • lightheadedness
  • shortness of breath

This is a medical emergency that calls for immediate treatment.

Quite a few conditions share symptoms that accompany chest pain. If you have chest pain for no known reason, consult with your doctor so you can start working toward a diagnosis.

Sudden chest pain accompanied by symptoms such as trouble breathing, pressure on your chest, and dizziness could signal a life-threatening emergency. Get help immediately.