You may feel pain in several places in your chest. For example, the pain may be behind the sternum, between the ribs or at the bottom of the sternum. The pain could also be on one side, as well as on both sides. It may have come on slowly, suddenly or intermittently. It’s completely understandable to be concerned when you experience chest pain. It may mean there’s something wrong with your heart, but it certainly doesn't have to be. Chest pain can have many other causes.
Chest pain can have several causes. The symptoms will be different for each cause.
Overload of the muscles between the ribs
When you cough frequently and intensely, the muscles between your ribs can become irritated and overloaded. This is also possible when you’ve done physically heavy work, like bricklaying, painting and cleaning.
You could also have a stabbing pain between your ribs and your sternum. There are muscles, tendons and cartilage which connect the ribs and sternum. It’s possible you have Tietze’s syndrome.
Stress and/or emotions
You can have a pressing pain in your chest when you experience stress and/or anxiety. You may also feel very short of breath. This could be because you’re very anxious, you’re having a panic attack, or because you suffer from depression.
Stomach acid in your oesophagus can also cause chest pain. The pain starts after eating and is especially noticeable when bending over or lying down. The pain can be lessened by eating or drinking something (water or milk). The pain may also be reduced if you take indigestion medication.
Narrowed coronary arteries may result in your heart not getting enough oxygen. This can be caused by stress, or because you’ve done something active. The pain will usually disappear when you quietly sit or lie down for a while. However, if this doesn’t happen, it may be an indication that you’re having a heart attack. In such cases you will generally also be feeling nauseous and sweaty.
The pain can also be caused by an infected pericardium. This means you may first suffer from:
- A fever.
- A cold.
The pain may also get worse when you cough, take deep breaths, or when you lie down on your left or right side.
Pneumonia, the flu, or a bad cold can all cause chest pain. This can make it very painful to breathe and cough. It can also be caused by a pulmonary embolism. A pulmonary embolism means part of the lung no longer receives oxygen because a blood clot is stuck in a blood vessel. The symptoms you may experience are:
- Pain when sighing.
- Rapid breathing.
- Lots of coughing.
The pain could also be caused by a collapsed lung. That pain would come on suddenly and you can feel very short of breath.
You may have itching or pain on one side of your rib cage. This is caused by shingles. This can be recognised by spots and blisters on your ribcage.
We recommend you do the following in case of chest pain:
- Take sufficient time to rest. You can do this by lying or sitting down.
- This can reduce the pain of an infected pericardium.
- Taking some indigestion medication. This can reduce the symptoms of stuck and rising up stomach acid.
- Have something to eat and drink if the pain is caused by heartburn.
- Apply zinc ointment or lanette ointment on the shingles.
You should immediately contact the emergency department (112) if you:
- experience chest pain.
- feel pressure on your chest.
- feel sweaty.
- and feel nauseous.
The above symptoms may mean you’re having a heart attack. This will require rapid intervention.
Contact your GP immediately if you:
- Experience pressure in the chest upon exertion and this doesn’t go away when you sit or lie down quietly.
- Have a sharp and/or stabbing pain in your chest and find it difficult to breathe.
- Are breathing rapidly and are short of breath.
- Have a fever.
- Severe pain and suffering from the shingles on your rib cage.