Chest Pressure

Chest pressure is a symptom that happens with many medical conditions. Some, like heart attacks, are life-threatening. Others are treatable with home remedies or over-the-counter medications. It’s important not to self-diagnose this condition and to talk to a healthcare provider quickly to make sure it isn’t a sign of a dangerous problem.

Overview

Common causes of chest pressure includes high blood pressure, asthma and heart attack.
Some of the possible causes of chest pressure.

What is chest pressure?

Chest pressure is a symptom that can signal dangerous, life-threatening problems like heart attacks. However, it can also happen with benign issues or conditions. Understanding this condition and its potential causes can help you spot warning signs of serious medical conditions and get help fast.

IMPORTANT: You should never assume that chest pressure can’t be a heart attack. If it could be a heart attack, even when the chances of it being one are slim, you should call 911 (or the relevant local emergency services phone number) immediately. Delaying medical care for a heart attack can lead to severe and permanent heart damage. While heart attacks tend to happen to people over the age of 50, they can happen to younger people for a wide range of reasons.

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Possible Causes

What are the most common causes of this symptom?

Chest pressure is a non-specific symptom, meaning it can happen for several different reasons. Potential causes include:

What does chest pressure feel like?

One of the key ways that healthcare providers determine what’s causing this symptom is by having you describe what it feels like and where the feeling is strongest. People with chest pressure often describe it using the following words:

  • Squeezing.
  • Crushing.
  • Tightness.
  • Heaviness (like a weight on your chest).

How to tell it apart

Chest pain, pressure, or discomfort from a heart attack — or any other condition limiting blood flow to parts of your heart — is called angina. This kind of pressure or pain happens because without enough blood flow, the cells in the affected heart muscle will start to die.

Chest pressure from a heart attack often doesn’t stay in one place. It’s common for the pressure or pain to “radiate,” meaning it spreads outward toward other parts of your body like your neck, arm (especially left arm), jaw, abdomen (your belly), back or shoulder. It also tends to worsen when you're active and gets better when you rest, and it can also happen when you’re under severe emotional stress or during sexual activity.

Other key ways to distinguish causes of chest pressure include:

  • Timing. Does it happen predictably at certain times of day, especially after meals? Does it last for a long time, or is it just a few minutes?
  • Location. Is it in the center of your chest, or is it off to one side? Is it higher (toward your throat) or lower (toward your belly)?
  • What you’re doing. Does the pressure happen with certain activities or under certain circumstances? Examples of this include when you're very anxious or panicking, or if it happens when you're trying to swallow something you're eating or drinking?

Answering or elaborating on the above questions and information is important when you talk to a healthcare provider. However, you should never try to self-diagnose chest pressure unless you've spoken with your healthcare provider about it before and they've given you guidance on what to watch for and how to react.

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Care and Treatment

How is this symptom treated?

The treatment for chest pressure depends entirely on what causes it. Examples of possible treatments include:

  • Heart attack: Medication like nitroglycerin. More advanced treatments can include angioplasty or even coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG).
  • Pulmonary hypertension: Medications or heart surgery.
  • Digestive tract problems like esophageal spasms or hiatal hernia: Treatments range from home remedies or botulinum toxin injections for esophageal spasms to medication or surgery for any of the digestive tract-related problems when they're more severe.
  • Asthma: Medications that relax your airway smooth muscle cells.
  • Specific lung problems: Emergency interventions, depending on the specific cause, including surgery.
  • Anxiety or panic disorders: Therapy and relaxation techniques, or medications in more severe or persistent cases.

What can I do at home to treat this symptom?

You shouldn’t try to treat chest pressure at home without first talking to a healthcare provider. This is because chest pressure can be a sign of dangerous medical conditions that you shouldn’t self-diagnose. If chest pressure isn’t severe or happens gradually, you should call your healthcare provider to ask about it. This is because heart attacks can still cause chest pressure that isn’t severe. If it is severe or happens suddenly, you should get medical attention immediately.

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How can this symptom be prevented?

Chest pressure is often unpredictable, so it isn't preventable. If it happens predictably or for preventable reasons, your healthcare provider is the best person to turn to for information. Once they find the cause, they can tell you more about how you can prevent chest pressure or limit its severity.

When to Call the Doctor

When should this symptom be treated by a doctor or healthcare provider?

Chest pressure that happens suddenly or that is severe needs emergency medical attention. When it happens gradually or isn't severe, you should call your healthcare provider to ask them for guidance. In many cases, they'll advise you to get medical attention just to be sure you aren't having a more dangerous problem like a heart attack.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Chest pressure can be a sign of a dangerous problem, or it can happen for a harmless reason. Regardless of the cause, it's a symptom you shouldn't ignore or try to self-diagnose. If you experience chest pressure, you should call your healthcare provider and get their advice on what to do. If there's a chance it could be a heart attack or other life-threatening problem, you should act as if it is and get immediate medical attention right away. Delaying medical care for a medical emergency can lead to dangerous or deadly complications.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/05/2022.

Learn more about our editorial process.

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