What can cause chest pain while breathing?

Chest pain while breathing can occur during a heart attack, which requires urgent medical attention. But there are also some other conditions that may cause chest pain while breathing.

Chest pain while breathing can occur during a heart attack, which requires urgent medical attention. But there are also some other conditions that may cause chest pain while breathing.

This article discusses when to call 911 for chest pain while breathing, plus other possible reasons why chest pain may occur.

When to call 911

A man experiences chest pain when breathing.
Chest pain may be indicative of a heart attack, lung problems, gastrointestinal issues, or other medical conditions.

Chest pain could indicate a heart attack.

Heart attacks are a medical emergency and require calling 911 immediately.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), signs of a heart attack include:

  • chest pain or tightness
  • dizziness and lightheadedness
  • sweating
  • shortness of breath
  • nausea and vomiting
  • extreme anxiety
  • coughing or wheezing
  • cold sweats
  • pain around the body, such as in the stomach

Anyone experiencing these symptoms must contact emergency services immediately.

Panic attack

Panic attacks occur with extreme bouts of anxiety.

They cause sudden and intense symptoms that can feel similar to a heart attack.

Symptoms might include:

  • feeling faint
  • rapid heart rate
  • difficulty breathing
  • chest pain
  • nausea
  • hot flushes
  • shaking
  • chills
  • numbness or muscle weakness

Panic attacks are not harmful, but a doctor will check symptoms to rule out a heart attack.

People who experience panic attacks regularly may have an anxiety or panic disorder.

Treatment

Treatments can include a combination of medications and psychotherapies.

Heart causes

Chest pain can also indicate heart diseases that include:

1. Angina

Angina is a form of chest pain that occurs when there is a restriction to blood flowing into the heart.

It can also cause shortness of breath in some people.

The pain can feel like a tightness or pressure in the chest, which can spread around the body. It may feel like a dull ache or a severe tightness.

Doctors will diagnose angina by assessing the symptoms and medical history. They may also require further tests, such as an electrocardiogram (EKG).

Treatment

The AHA state that treatments for angina include medications to reduce pain and discomfort.

A doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise and a healthful diet. Some people may require surgery to treat angina.

2. Heart failure

Heart failure is where the heart is unable to push blood around the body as normal.

Signs and symptoms of heart failure include:

  • shortness of breath
  • coughing or wheezing
  • swelling in the feet, legs, or ankles
  • tiredness
  • changes in appetite
  • increased heart rate
  • confusion

To diagnose heart failure, a doctor will assess the symptoms and may order tests that include an EKG.

Treatment

Doctors may use several medications to treat the symptoms of heart failure.

Medications can include:

  • angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
  • angiotensin II receptor blockers or inhibitors
  • angiotensin-receptor neprilysin inhibitors (ARNIs)
  • If channel blocker
  • beta-blockers
  • aldosterone antagonists
  • hydralazine and isosorbide dinitrate
  • diuretics

Sometimes, treatment will involve surgery and implants in the chest.

3. Pericarditis

Pericarditis is where inflammation occurs in the heart.

The inflammation affects the tissues surrounding the heart, known as the pericardium.

The condition causes chest pain and other symptoms that include:

  • heart palpitations
  • fever
  • shortness of breath
  • muscle weakness
  • swelling in the stomach or legs
  • cough
  • shoulder pain

A doctor will listen to the chest to check for signs of pericarditis. They might require further tests, such as a chest X-ray.

Treatment

Treatments for pericarditis can involve medications, such as painkillers or corticosteroids.

In some cases, surgery may be necessary to treat the problem.

Lung causes

Chest pain while breathing can occur due to conditions that affect the lungs.

1. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

COPD is a group of disorders that make it increasingly hard to breathe. These conditions cause other symptoms that include:

  • a persistent cough
  • cough with excessive mucus
  • wheezing
  • tightness or pain in the chest
  • difficulty breathing

Doctors will assess the symptoms and a person’s medical history to diagnose COPD. They will ask questions about smoking, which is a significant cause of COPD. They might also order medical tests that check for breathing problems.

Treatment

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, treatment focuses on relieving symptoms, slowing down the progression of the condition, and improving a person’s overall health.

Lifestyle changes include quitting smoking and avoiding lung irritants.

A doctor might also prescribe medications, such as bronchodilators.

A person should also get the flu shot and pneumococcal vaccine.

2. Asthma

Asthma is a chronic condition that can cause inflammation and narrowing of the airways.

This can cause difficulties in breathing and symptoms that include:

  • chest pain and tightness
  • coughing, particularly in the morning or evening
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing

A doctor will check the symptoms and may order additional tests to diagnose asthma. For example, they might order a spirometry test that involves breathing through a tube.

Treatment

There is no cure for asthma, but treatments usually involve a combination of medications.

Some medications for asthma help with the short-term symptoms, such as an inhaler that relaxes the throat muscles.

3. Chest infection

There are several types of infections that affect the chest, such as:

Different types of germs can cause these infections, such as bacteria or a virus.

Treatment

The type of germ will determine how to treat the condition.

Doctors will likely use antibiotics to treat a bacterial chest infection. They may use antiviral medications for treating viral infections, but sometimes the virus will go away on its own.

In severe cases, hospital treatment may be necessary. For example, some people may need breathing support from a ventilator.

Learn more about treatments for chest infections here.

4. Collapsed lung

A collapsed lung is where air enters the space between the chest wall and the lung, causing sudden chest pain.

It can cause other symptoms that include:

  • shortness of breath
  • tiredness
  • rapid heart rate

The condition can be the result of a chest injury or lung disease.

Doctors will check for underlying causes by assessing symptoms, medical history, and further tests.

Treatment

Treatment will depend on the severity of the damage.

Less severe cases can sometimes heal on their own. But in other cases, a doctor may remove excess air using a needle or chest drain.

5. Pulmonary embolism

pulmonary embolism is where a blood clot restricts blood flowing into the lungs.

It can cause chest pain and other symptoms, such as:

  • shortness of breath
  • coughing, perhaps coughing up blood
  • difficulty breathing

Treatment

Pulmonary embolisms require treatment in the hospital.

Doctors may use anticoagulant medications to break up the blood clot.

6. Pleurisy

Pleurisy is where inflammation occurs in the tissues between the lungs and ribcage.

It can cause sharp, sudden chest pain while breathing.

Other possible symptoms include:

  • shortness of breath
  • cough
  • bluish skin, or cyanosis
  • fever
  • anxiety
  • rapid heart rate

A doctor will diagnose pleurisy by assessing a person’s symptoms. They might also use other tests, such as blood tests and X-rays.

Treatment

Treatment can vary.

The doctor may prescribe nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), or corticosteroids to help with symptoms.

Gastrointestinal causes

Chest pain while breathing can also occur due to gastrointestinal conditions.

1. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

The esophagus is a long, hollow tube that runs from the mouth to the stomach.

GERD occurs when the contents of the stomach come back up into the esophagus. Along with chest pain and potential respiratory problems, other symptoms can include:

Treatment

Treatments will vary, depending on the type of problem. For example, a doctor may prescribe antacid medications to treat GERD.

Doctors may also recommend dietary and lifestyle changes.

2. Hiatal hernia

A hiatal hernia is where a part of the stomach moves up into the chest.

In most cases, it causes no symptoms. But in some people, a hiatal hernia might cause chest pain, heartburn, and a bulge in the diaphragm.

Doctors may diagnose a hiatal hernia using medical imaging, such as an X-ray.

Treatment

Treatment may involve medications for the symptoms, such as antacids.

In some cases, surgery to remove the hernia may be necessary.

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Musculoskeletal causes

Musculoskeletal causes can also cause chest pain while breathing.

1. Chest injury

Injuries to the chest can result in chest pain and difficulty when breathing. For example, a broken or bruised rib can cause pain while breathing, coughing, or moving.

Symptoms of a broken rib typically include:

  • bruising
  • pain or tenderness
  • inability to take a full breath

Treatment

Some injuries will heal on their own over time.

A doctor may suggest resting and taking painkillers during the recovery period.

In more serious cases, a doctor may suggest further treatment or surgery.

2. Costochondritis

This is when the costal cartilages, where the ribs meet the sternum, become inflamed.

The pain can be sharp or dull. It can also get worse in certain positions or when a person takes a deep breath.

A doctor may arrange a variety of diagnostic tests to rule out other causes of chest pain.

Treatment

A person can take NSAIDs to help reduce the pain.

When to see a doctor

It is worth seeing a doctor for any persistent chest pain, particularly when it affects breathing.

In some cases, the pain will go away on its own. But a doctor will be able to rule out an underlying medical condition.

It is essential to call 911 if the chest pain is sudden and occurs with other signs of a heart attack.

Summary

There are many possible causes of chest pain. Most will require a trip to the doctor for a diagnosis.

Chest pain can be a sign of a serious condition, such as a heart attack, and require immediate medical care.

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