Left Side Chest Pain: Causes and When to See a Doctor

Left Side Chest Pain: Causes and When to See a Doctor
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Left side chest pain is very often caused by serious medical conditions related to your heart. Although there can be other reasons for non-cardiac chest pain on the left side, you should never ignore any kind of chest pain. You don’t always have to experience sharp stabbing pains in the chest to be concerned. Sometimes, cardiac left side chest pain can be a dull, constant pain or it could feel like tightness or a squeezing feeling in your chest.

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Some of the causes of cardiac left side chest pain are narrowed arteries due to a buildup of plaque, angina, a shortage of blood supply to the heart (called myocardial ischemia), and a heart attack. The reason that heart-related pain occurs on the left side of your chest is because the location of your heart is just behind the breastbone, but the largest part of the heart is in the left part of your chest. This is the strongest part of your heart which pumps oxygen-rich blood back to the body.

There are also non-heart related reasons for chest pain in the left side and some of these causes are due to infections, stress, injury, or nerve damage. Usually, non-cardiac chest pain hurts when you breathe or cough.

In this article, you will find the answers to what could be causing left side chest pains and when they become serious enough to call a doctor. First of all, let’s look at the difference between cardiac (heart related) and non-cardiac chest pain.

Cardiac or Non-Cardiac Chest Pain?

There is always a worry that left side chest pain is heart-related. While that is often the case, it’s important to differentiate between cardiac and non-cardiac chest pain. This is because sometimes, the causes of chest pain in the left part of the chest isn’t connected with your heart, such as pulled muscle in the chest.

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that cardiac chest pain will result in tightness or pressure in your chest that feels as if there is a crushing weight there. The heart-related chest pain usually radiates to your arm, jaw, neck, and back. You may also experience shortness of breath, cold sweats, and weakness.1

However, non-heart related chest pain is usually in just one spot. The pain may intensify or go away when you change your body position and it may be severe when you cough or sneeze. The intensity of pain can range from dull constant pains to sharp chest pains that cause great discomfort. You may also experience a sour taste in your mouth from acid reflux (heartburn).

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Common Causes of Left Side Chest Pain

Let’s look at some of the most common reasons for left side chest pain.

Heart attack

Sharp pain on the left side of your chest is one of the most common symptoms of a heart attack. A heart attack is caused when not enough oxygen-rich blood gets to the heart. The heart attack will usually cause severe chest pain that may last for a few minutes or it may come and go.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the discomfort may resemble a feeling of pressure, fullness or squeezing in the upper chest. It can happen after a physical exercise or come on suddenly when you are resting. They say that discomfort in the center or left side of the chest are common in heart attacks.2

The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that some of the other common signs of a heart attack include:3

  • Pain and/or discomfort in your chest area.
  • Pain or discomfort in your left arm or both arms, in your back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
  • Breathlessness that may or may not be accompanied by chest discomfort.
  • Dizziness, cold sweats, or nausea.

The AHA also say that women can experience different heart attack symptoms from men. Dr. Nieca Goldberg is quoted on Heart.org as saying that women can experience heart attacks without chest pressure. They may only have shortness of breath, pain in the upper abdomen, dizziness, extreme fatigue, or upper back pressure.4

There are many lifestyle choices that you can take to reduce the risk of suffering a heart attack. For more information on how to improve your heart health, please read my article on how to help prevent a heart attack by doing 5 easy things.

Angina

Angina causes severe pain and discomfort on the upper left side of your chest and in the middle of your chest. The tightness and discomfort in your chest are as a result of not enough oxygen-rich blood getting to your heart. The reason for this is usually coronary heart disease caused by narrow or blocked arteries – myocardial ischemia.

Angina symptoms can also feel like a heart attack and severe angina can also lead to a heart attack. Angina is also a sign of poor blood circulation.

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A coronary artery spasm can also cause angina pains or even a heart attack. According to Professor of Cardiology, Dr. Michael A. Chen, coronary artery spasms are common in people with high cholesterol or high blood pressure. The spasm can cause angina which results in a crushing or constricting pain on the left side of the chest.5

Doctors from the American Heart Association say that all chest pain should be checked by a doctor. Your doctor can tell if you have stable angina, which can be managed with medication, proper lifestyle choices, and reducing stress in your life.6 Or, you may have unstable angina, which is more serious and can cause chest pain even when resting.7

Pericarditis

An infection of the membrane around your heart can cause a condition called pericarditis which results in sharp, stabbing pains in the left side of the chest. The chest pains are a result of inflammation to the pericardial sac. Doctors think that autoimmune disorders, trauma, or kidney failure can also cause pericarditis.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute reports that the left side chest pain due to pericarditis can feel like a heart attack. However, the pain should ease if you change your body position and sit upright, but lying down may make the pain worse. Some people experience dull aches in the chest as opposed to sharp, shooting pains.8

Costochondritis

Costochondritis is painful inflammation of your sternum (breastbone) which can cause sharp, aching pains on the left side of your chest or sometimes on the right. Costochondritis can be caused by a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection.

According to doctors at the Mayo Clinic, the pain is usually felt on the left side of the breastbone and the inflammation can also affect one or more ribs. The left side chest pains usually feel worse when you breathe deeply or cough.9

To ease the chest pain you can use a hot compress on the affected area a few times a day to relieve the pain. Also, ginger can help to reduce inflammation in joints. You can make an anti-inflammatory ginger tea to help ease the discomfort in your chest.

Heartburn / GERD

Heartburn can cause chest pain like a heart-attack and it can even be mistaken for a heart attack. Heartburn is caused when acid from the stomach flows back up the esophagus and causes a burning sensation behind the ribs. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a more serious form of heartburn.

According to the Mayo Clinic, even experienced doctors can have difficulty in distinguishing between chest pains caused by heartburn, angina, and a heart attack.10 However, usually, chest pains due to heartburn don’t radiate to the shoulder, neck, or arms. Taking heartburn relief medication usually helps to ease the pain.

Panic or anxiety attack

Panic attacks can cause severe chest pains that are very similar to heart-related pain. Panic attacks can also cause shortness of breath, a feeling of pressure in the chest, sweating, and an irregular heartbeat.

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The Association of Medicine and Psychiatry says that although the root causes of panic/anxiety attacks aren’t cardiac, they can affect the heart.11 For example, increased panic can raise blood pressure and cause hyperventilation. Also, panic attacks can cause myocardial ischemia and heart-related chest pain, and this will generally be felt on the left side of the chest.

However, the causes of chest pain caused by panic attacks can also be due to extra pressure on the chest muscles and ribs.

Panic disorder is treatable and it’s important to learn how to control anxiety and stress. This is important because, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, studies have shown that people with panic disorder are at an increased risk of developing heart disease.12

Stress

Stress has a negative effect on your body and too much stress can be a reason for left-sided chest pain. Stress can tighten up your chest muscles resulting in discomfort in your upper chest. If you are under prolonged stress, you are also at risk from developing high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

A study in Scandinavia found a definite link between stress and chest pains on the left side of your body. The researchers found that that people with depression or people under emotional stress experienced “left-sided psychogenic chest pain.”13

There are many natural ways to help manage stress better and feel more relaxed. Many people get relief from stress and anxiety by using essential oils to help relax the mind.

Intercostal neuralgia

Nerve damage to your chest area can also cause pains on either side of your chest. Some of the common reasons for nerve damage (intercostal neuralgia) are shingles, chest rib injury, or surgery to the rib cage.

The University Pain Centre Maastricht describes the symptoms of intercostal neuralgia as sharp, shooting, or burning pain around the chest wall. Your skin may also be sensitive to touch.14

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a lung infection that can trigger pain in the left side of your chest depending on which lung is affected. Pneumonia is often a side effect of having a cold, the flu, or other respiratory infection but it can also develop if you have a weakened immune system.

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The University of Maryland says that among the various symptoms of pneumonia is chest pain and possibly upper abdominal pain on the side of the infected lung. Along with the sharp stabby chest pains, pneumonia also causes chills, fever, nausea, shortness of breath and weight loss.15

Pneumonia is a serious lung infection that can become a life-threatening medical condition. Pneumonia may also be one of the symptoms of lung disease. It’s always important to get prompt medical attention if you suspect that you have pneumonia.

Pleurisy

Pleurisy is inflammation of the pleura (the tissue that covers the lungs and chest wall) and it can cause pain on either the left side of your chest or the right side. Pleurisy can be caused by a virus or bacterial infection. Some the reasons for the infection and inflammation are an injury to the chest, rheumatoid arthritis, or pancreatitis.

According to doctors on WebMD, pleurisy causes chest pain that hurts when you breathe. Coughing, sneezing, or sudden movements can aggravate the pain. The chest pain is usually only on one side of the chest and feels like a stabbing, uncomfortable pain.15

Myocarditis

Chest pains in the center or left side of your chest could be caused by myocarditis. Myocarditis happens when an infection of the heart muscle causes inflammation and pain. Many people suffer from myocarditis without any symptoms.

Dr. James Beckerman on WebMD says that the myocarditis chest pains cause sharp stabbing pains which can spread to your neck or shoulder. Some other symptoms include shortness of breath, abnormal heartbeat, and fatigue.

Usually, a blood test, chest X-ray, or cardiogram can tell if the discomfort in your chest is due to inflammation of the heart muscle.

Rib fracture or injury

Any kind of trauma or blow to your rib cage or to the muscles connecting your ribs (called intercostal muscles) can result in various degrees of chest pain. If you have suffered an injury to your chest, it’s important to have a doctor examine your injuries, even if they seem minor. An injury to your chest can also cause xiphoid process pain that can be difficult to diagnose because it can mimic symptoms of other health issues.

Doctors on WebMD actually advise that if you have chest pain after an injury, you should see a doctor. This is to rule out the possibility that the pain is not the result of a heart attack. A trauma to the chest can also damage the heart muscles, lungs, kidneys, liver, or spleen.16

Left Side Chest Pain – When to See a Doctor

Because there is always a risk that left side chest pain is heart-related, you should see a doctor if you have sharp, dull, stabbing or aching chest pains. Also, if you feel a tight, crushing, or squeezing sensation in your chest, seek medical help promptly.

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Article Sources:

  1. MayoClinic. Chest pain.
  2. NHLBI. Signs and symptoms of coronary heart disease.
  3. Heart. Warning signs of a heart attack.
  4. Heart. Heart attack symptoms in women.
  5. MedlinePlus. Coronary artery spasm.
  6. Heart. Angina pectoris.
  7. Heart. Unstable angina.
  8. NHLBI. Signs and symptoms of pericarditis.
  9. MayoClinic. Costochondritis.
  10. MayoClinic. Heartburn.
  11. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2002; 4(2): 54–62.
  12. ADAA. Am I having a panic attack or heart attack?
  13. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 1993 Jul;88(1):12-5.
  14. PIJN. Intercostal neuralgia.
  15. WebMD. Pleurisy.
  16. WebMD. Types of chest
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One Response to Left Side Chest Pain: Causes and When to See a Doctor

  1. jimmy says:

    Dear Sir My Name is jimmy im 22 year old, since from last few i feel breathless from my left side and also pain near ribcage. after that i went to hospital where they did ecg and blood tests but all of them were normal now i fail to understand is it because of infection or virus . because i feel sometime pain come near ribcage sometime near stomach and sometimes it goes away now i want to know if everything is normal why im feeling breathless only from my left side and some time i feel good .

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