What causes chest discomfort?

Angina (brief, sharp heart pain) is a symptom of a condition called myocardial ischemia that occurs when the heart muscle, or myocardium, doesn’t get as much oxygen-carrying blood as it needs. This usually occurs because one or more of the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart muscle, is narrowed or blocked. Insufficient blood supply is called ischemia.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition in which food or liquids in the stomach leak backward from the stomach into the esophagus, the tube that goes from the mouth to the stomach. This leaking can irritate the esophagus, causing heartburn and other symptoms.

Pneumonia and bronchitis are conditions that cause the lungs or bronchi (air passageways in the lungs) to become inflamed and filled with fluid, making it difficult to breathe. Anxiety is the most common emotional cause of chest discomfort, resulting in a state of fear that can be accompanied by shortness of breath, heart palpitations, or chest discomfort.

Cardiovascular causes of chest discomfort

Cardiovascular diseases are a common cause of chest discomfort. Examples include:

  • Acute coronary syndrome
  • Angina (pain resulting from lack of blood flow to the heart)
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
  • Pericarditis (inflammation of the membrane surrounding the heart)

Gastrointestinal causes of chest discomfort

Gastrointestinal disorders are a common cause of chest discomfort. Examples include:

  • Erosive esophagitis (inflammation of the esophagus)
  • Gastritis (inflammation of the stomach)
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Pulmonary causes of chest discomfort

  • Pulmonary diseases are another common cause of chest discomfort. Examples include:
  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis (inflammation of air passageways in the lungs)
  • Cystic fibrosis (hereditary disease characterized by lung, digestive and growth disorders)
  • Pleurisy (inflammation of the membrane that lines the chest cavity and lungs)
  • Pneumonia
  • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung)
  • Pulmonary embolism (blockage in a blood vessel in the lungs)
  • Pulmonary hypertension (elevated blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs)

Emotional causes of chest discomfort

Emotional disorders may be a cause of chest discomfort. Examples include:

  • Anxiety
  • Emotional stress
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Panic attacks
  • Phobias (excessive fears)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Serious or life-threatening causes of chest discomfort

In some cases, chest discomfort may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Hemothorax (accumulation of fluid, including blood, around the lungs)
  • Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
  • Pericarditis (inflammation of the membrane surrounding the heart)
  • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung)
  • Pulmonary embolism (blockage in a blood vessel in the lungs)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of chest discomfort

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your chest discomfort including:

  • When did you first notice chest discomfort?
  • When do you feel chest discomfort?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • Does anything relieve or worsen your chest discomfort?
  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of chest discomfort?

Because chest discomfort can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Cardiogenic shock (shock caused by heart damage and ineffective heart function)
  • Erosive esophagitis (inflammation of the esophagus)
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Pleural effusion (accumulation of fluid around the lungs)
  • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung)


  1. Angina pectoris/stable angine. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HeartAttack/SymptomsDiagnosisofHeartAttack/Angina-Pectoris-....
  2. Pleurisy. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002347/.
  3. Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012.

What is chest discomfort?

Chest discomfort is a common symptom of heart, lung and digestive disorders and of physical injury. Discomfort felt in the chest can result from a lack of blood flow to vital organs or from inflammation of the heart, lungs or esophagus. It may also occur with certain conditions affecting the gastrointestinal system that allow the digestive juices to enter the esophagus, causing discomfort.
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What other symptoms might occur with chest discomfort?

Chest discomfort may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the chest may also involve other body systems.

Cardiovascular symptoms that may occur along with chest discomfort

Chest discomfort may accompany other symptoms affecting the cardiovascular system including:

Read more about chest discomfortsymptoms

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Aug 9, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Heart, Blood and Circulation, Angina