Monday Medical: Chest pain in adults |

Monday Medical: Chest pain in adults

Susan Cunningham
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

It’s common knowledge that chest pain can signal a heart issue. But is chest pain always a sign of a heart issue? And when should you seek help?

Dr. Will Baker, a cardiologist with UCHealth Heart and Vascular Clinics in Steamboat Springs and Craig, helps clear up questions about chest pain and heart issues below.

What does a heart attack or other heart issue feel like?

Symptoms can be varied and, perhaps surprisingly, often don’t feel like traditional pain.

“Symptoms of heart conditions are often described as heaviness, pressure, squeezing or indigestion-like, to name a few,” Baker said. “The discomfort is usually vaguely located in the center or left side of the chest and not usually described as having a discrete location that could be pointed to with a finger.”

There may be radiating pain or discomfort in the neck, left shoulder or arm, jaw or face, the upper abdomen below the rib cage or even in the back, especially around the scapula.

Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, a feeling of irregular heartbeats, lightheadedness or even blacking out can also be symptoms of a heart issue.

Symptoms may start off as mild at first, coming on only during exertion and then resolving but then progress to be more severe or frequent.

Does chest tightness or discomfort always signal a heart issue?

Not always. Various issues can cause discomfort in the chest, including lung conditions, musculoskeletal conditions or stomach and esophageal conditions. Differentiating between these issues may be difficult, so never hesitate to see your health care provider.

What does heart disease feel like?

Most people feel more fatigued or short of breath as heart disease develops. That fatigue may come on during exercise, as well as even regular activities, such as yardwork or climbing stairs, and may develop suddenly or over the course of weeks or months.

“All of these symptoms signal that the heart is likely not getting enough of its own blood to be healthy and function normally,” Baker said. “This is most often due to blockage in the coronary arteries or blood vessels of the heart muscle that supply it with the energy and oxygen it needs to function normally and be healthy.”

What happens during a heart attack?

The blood supply to the heart muscle is suddenly and totally cut off, injuring the heart muscle. “If blood supply is not re-established quickly, that part of the heart muscle can be irreversibly damaged,” Baker said.

When should I seek help?

Never hesitate to seek help if you have any signs of a heart issue, as time is of the essence. In general, severe symptoms that don’t resolve in a few minutes, or new symptoms that occur repeatedly or are persistent, should always be evaluated immediately in the emergency department.

Milder symptoms are still reason to see a doctor quickly, but may not need to be seen in an emergency setting.

“Symptoms of heart disease are rarely like in the movies when an individual clutches their chest with a fisted hand and collapses,” Baker said. “Be proactive and get evaluated if you are even slightly concerned.”

Who is at risk for heart issues?

Risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, a family history of heart disease, older age or a history of smoking. Women are at just as high a risk of developing heart disease as men.

Don’t underestimate the power of prevention: By eating a healthy diet, exercising, managing cholesterol and blood pressure, and not smoking, you can decrease your risk of heart disease.

“It is better to prevent a heart attack than treat a heart attack,” Baker said.

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at

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