CHEST PAIN CAN feel like your body is setting off an alarm.
Your chest holds tons of vital organs, including your heart and lungs, of course. Medical issues that can arise with these organs can be life-threatening. So, of course, having pain in your chest can feel scary.
Left-sided chest pain is commonly associated with a heart attack. But what about right sided pain? Is it as serious as left-sided pain? What should you do when you feel that kind of pain?
“Chest pain can range from mild in severity to excruciating, innocent to life-threatening, and anywhere in between,” says says Joseph Behn, M.D., family medicine physician at Mayo Clinic Health System.
We asked experts when to worry, and when to get help. All your chest pain questions answered, below.
What Can Cause Right-Sided Chest Pain?
Unfortunately, the answer is quite broad—there are so many medical conditions that can cause pain in the chest.
It can be as simple as a pulled muscle or as complicated as pulmonary embolism, says Behn. Digestive issues such as acid reflux can radiate pain into the right side of the chest. Several musculoskeletal problems, such as broken ribs and pulled chest or back muscles can also result in pain. Even shingles can cause discomfort in that area.
More serious issues that deal with the heart and lungs are possible, too. Some can be life threatening, but most of them are treatable if help is sought out quickly. These can include esophagus spasms, pneumonia, aortic dissection, atrial fibrillation, and heart failure.
“While many of these conditions are not life threatening, chest pain should always be taken seriously, regardless of which side is affected,” says Jonathan Koppel, M.D., assistant professor and general internist at Mount Sinai Hospital.
It’s worth noting that it is possible to feel a heart attack on the right side of your chest. Though it’s typically noticed on the left side, heart attack pain can be difficult to localize, or the pain can radiate to the other side of the chest. Pain pathways vary widely from person to person, says John Elefteriades, M.D., cardiologist and Men’s Health advisor. This means that how the pain surfaces differs for every individual.
How Do You Know if Chest Pain Is Serious?
Even though it’s possible that heart attack pain can show up on the right side of the chest, if it’s only on the right and is very distinct in its location, it’s unlikely to be from a heart attack, Koppel says.
How the pain materializes may be a signal of its severity. If you feel it gets worse with exertion, or comes with a shortness of breath, get it checked.
Behn says that new-onset pain that has new symptoms may be a sign that there’s something more serious going on. If the new pain comes with sweating, nausea, lightheadedness, it’s worth getting checked promptly.
Knowing your family health history and your personal risk factors can help you better evaluate pains like this. “It’s best not to simply judge chest pain by the physical location of the pain itself but by a patient’s clinical risk factors, the behavior and progression of the pain, and by other associated symptoms,” Behn says.
For example, if your family has a history of heart attacks, it’s best for you to get help right away if you experience any kind of chest pain. Have a conversation with your doctor about what you are predisposed to so you can be prepared.
When Should I Contact A Doctor About Right-Sided Chest Pain?
If the pain feels muscular and doesn’t come with any other symptoms, call your doctor to make an appointment to double check. If you’re unsure, head to an emergency healthcare facility. It may save your life.
“Oftentimes people might create a story in their mind which allows them to brush off the symptoms such as ‘I must have pulled a muscle’ or ‘I must have eaten something that didn’t agree with me’,” Behn says. “They may be right. They may be fatally wrong.”
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.
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