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It is not always possible to tell if chest pain is due to a heart attack.
Because chest pain is one of the main signs of a heart attack, many fear the worst when they feel even slight twinges of chest discomfort. In many cases, these random chest pains do not herald a catastrophe. Not all heart attacks cause classic symptoms and even doctors sometimes have trouble diagnosing the cause of chest pain in some people. A few clues may help you determine whether your chest pain is due to a heart attack, but any chest discomfort that persists or recurs should prompt a visit to your doctor.
Do Not Rely on Risk Factors
Whenever a doctor evaluates someone with chest pain, she considers that person's cardiac risk factors. Smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, obesity, a family history of heart disease, older age, being male and a number of other factors may increase the likelihood that an episode of chest pain is due to heart disease.
Although you might be tempted to discount the likelihood of a heart attack based on your lack of risk factors, it is important to remember that people without risk factors do have heart attacks. These people are more likely to die from their first heart attack, according to a study published in the November 2011 issue of "The Journal of the American Medical Association." This may be due to a delay in seeking medical care.
While the presence or absence of any specific sign or symptom cannot be used to absolutely rule out a heart attack, the characteristics of chest pain not from a heart attack may offer reassurance. If your pain comes in short jabs that last only a few seconds, it is unlikely to be due to your heart. Stabbing pain is less likely to be heart-related than squeezing or crushing pain. Pain that gets worse with reaching, twisting, pushing against your chest wall or breathing in and out is unlikely related to your heart. If your pain does not get worse with exertion, this is also a reassuring sign.
Where you feel the pain may also offer valuable information. Discomfort that is on the right side of your chest is less likely to be due to a heart attack than pain beneath your breastbone, on the left side of your chest or radiating into your arms, shoulders, neck or jaw. But you should know a heart attack may occasionally cause right-sided chest pain.
Just as there are clues that may indicate your chest pain is not related to your heart, the features of heart-related chest pain should prompt you to seek immediate medical attention. Seek medical care right away if your pain gets worse with exertion or improves with rest; if it feels like pressure and is persistent, rather than sharp and transient; if it is beneath your breastbone or radiates into your arms, neck or jaw; or if it is paired with shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness or nausea.
Evaluation Is Always Appropriate
A study published in the April 2000 issue of "The New England Journal of Medicine" revealed that approximately 2 percent of patients having heart attacks were sent home with an incorrect diagnosis. While technological advances continually improve diagnostic accuracy, these statistics show that diagnosing a heart attack can be difficult even for highly trained medical professionals. As it is more difficult for people without medical training to distinguish a heart attack from other causes of chest discomfort, it is always wise to seek medical care for chest pain.