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What Is Atypical Chest Pain?

By Melanie Smeltzer
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The definition of atypical chest pain is generally abstract and can vary from doctor to doctor. Some feel that it is atypical if it is not related to angina, or chest pain caused by a lack of oxygen-rich blood to the heart. Others state that atypical pain is any chest pain above the sternum, or chest bone, or pain radiating from the left or right side of the sternum. Although many occurrences of atypical pain are related to simple things like overexertion or spasms caused by acid reflux, some pains may be the result of a heart attack or other serious condition.

Atypical chest pain is generally a sharp, short-lived pain that occurs above the sternum, or to the left or right of it. Sometimes the pain may be more persistent or may radiate from a location other than the chest. In some cases, pain may develop in the arms or shoulders, abdomen, back, or throat. More persistent pain may be indicative of a severe medical condition. For example, persistent pain in the upper back, neck, or jaw may be caused by what is referred to as an atypical heart attack.

Those who have a lower threshold for pain may find that atypical chest pain is more noticeable than those who tolerate discomfort well. Additionally, women are more likely to experience irregular types of chest pain than men. Given the many variables, it is not surprising to find that this condition is often misdiagnosed by doctors or ignored by patients. In many cases, this will not result in complications, as most atypical pains are not actually due to heart or lung conditions, but instead, are generally due to mild musculoskeletal problems.

There are many potential causes for atypical chest pain, ranging from mild to severe. Overexertion due to exercise or heavy work is one common cause for this type of pain, as are headaches and the ingestion of acidic substances. Psychiatric issues, such as major depression or frequent panic attacks, and certain gastrointestinal conditions may also result in chest discomfort.

Some of the more severe causes of this condition are related to the lungs, heart, and blood vessels. For instance, many of those who experience this type of pain are encouraged to undergo certain physical examinations to help rule out pulmonary embolisms or an aortic aneurysm. Heart attacks, pneumonia, and thoracic tumors may also result in chest pain.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon953960 — On May 29, 2014

Sometimes chest pain can be serious, but there are also times when it can be attributed to causes other than a heart attack.

By healthy4life — On Jan 06, 2013

@lighth0se33 – You would have more than just neck and jaw pain. My aunt suffered this kind of heart attack, and she also felt very nauseous and suddenly very fatigued.

She said it came over her like a wave. She felt the pain in conjunction with the nausea, and she became so dizzy that she had to lie down. She thought she was going to vomit, but she didn't.

So, if all you have is a pain in your neck or jaw, you probably aren't having a heart attack. If you feel all the other symptoms, too, then you should get to the hospital.

By lighth0se33 — On Jan 05, 2013

I know that symptoms like chest pain indicate a heart attack, but I had no idea that neck and jaw pain could, as well! That troubles me. How will I know whether I'm having cramps in my neck or a heart attack?

By Oceana — On Jan 05, 2013

Stress and chest pain combined are scary. I know that some overweight, older members of my family have suffered heart attacks because of stress, and even though I'm young and healthy, I do worry when I feel chest pains.

I once went to a doctor about this, and she told me that I was having panic attacks. She put me on anti-anxiety pills, and I haven't had chest pains since.

By orangey03 — On Jan 04, 2013

I can usually identify the reasons for my chest pain. More often than not, it occurs after I have exercised chest muscles that I haven't used in awhile or after I have strained them in some way.

Sometimes, I pull the muscle between my underarm and my sternum when buckling my seat belt with one hand. The pain is horrible! It burns, and there is nothing I can do but wait for it to go away.

That is different from the short pains that I feel a day after a workout. These are more like sudden bursts of chest pain, and they occur on either the right or left side of my sternum. I don't worry about those, because I know that they are due to exercise.

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