Chest pain

Chest pain resulting from a heart problem is typically described by patients as a crushing or dull pain in the chest or as if something heavy was placed in the middle of their chest. It can sometimes radiate to the jaw and/or the left arm and is also referred to as angina.

Less frequently it may be a burning sensation in the upper part of their belly and is easily confused with a bellyache or indigestion. Furthermore, feeling a stabbing or sharp chest pain especially if exacerbated when inhaling and exhaling is rarely related to a heart problem.

Most commonly, heart-related chest pain is a symptom of coronary artery disease, in which the vessels supplying blood to the heart muscle are narrowed and there is not enough oxygen delivered to the heart tissues. In such a case, the chest pain occurs initially and predominantly after considerable exertion. Over time it is provoked by less and less exertion.

If it persists despite rest, it may be a sign of a heart attack. In this case, it is necessary to call an ambulance.

Chest pain that occurs during atrial fibrillation has the same characteristics. However, it happens during episodes of atrial fibrillation when not induced on by exercise. Chest pain may be the only symptom of atrial fibrillation, but more commonly it is associated with palpitations, shortness of breath and the feeling of the heart racing, sometimes even dizziness and fainting.

It can be a very unpleasant feeling and you should seek medical attention urgently, ideally by calling an ambulance. If the chest pain occurs intermittently and is not associated with other symptoms, you should consult your family doctor. They may advise you to undergo an ECG (electrocardiogram) or Holter tape (also known as a 24-hour tape/ECG).

If treated promptly, atrial fibrillation can often be brought under control with medication and, in many cases, temporarily or permanently resolved by undergoing medical procedures known as cardioversion and ablation. Most patients are eligible for this treatment but there are certain circumstances or comorbidities that would make such attempts futile, hence are generally avoided.

To find out more about these procedures, click on the link to the following pages: “What is a cardioversion?” and “What is an ablation?”.

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