What are the Most Common Causes of Chest Pain and Shortness of Breath?

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  • Written By: Erin J. Hill
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 09 July 2019
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The most common causes of chest pain and shortness of breath are angina, anxiety or stress, indigestion, heart attack, or pulmonary embolism. Some are more common than others, but each happens often enough to be taken seriously. No matter what the cause, any chest pain — with or without shortness of breath — that lasts longer than a few minutes or comes and goes for days or weeks, should be reported to a health care professional.

Anxiety is one common cause of chest pain and shortness of breath, and is often accompanied by rapid heart rate and sometimes a feeling of tightness. This can be caused by any number of things, from stress to an anxiety disorder. Treatment may include relaxation techniques or an antidepressant if symptoms are severe or long lasting.

Another cause of these symptoms is angina, which is a lack of blood flow to the heart muscle. This can signal an oncoming heart attack, but the condition may last for months or years with no changes. Symptoms may also include fatigue, dizziness, sweating, nausea, or pain in the upper portion of the body. Angina that is stable and unchanging may be left alone, but in some cases medication or surgery may be necessary.


Indigestion and other gastrointestinal conditions are often mistaken as heart attacks because they can cause chest pain and shortness of breath that closely mimic that of a more serious condition. Intestinal gas has been known to settle in the stomach or chest region, causing often severe pain and cramping. The weight of this gas or stomach contents in combination with gas, can cause a feeling of heaviness in the chest and shortness of breath. Symptoms usually subside once the gas is passed.

A heart attack is the most feared cause of chest pain and shortness of breath, and it comes as a result of a blocked artery leading to the heart. This can be a fatal condition, and often requires surgery or drugs to clear plaque from the artery walls. Rehabilitation including a new diet and exercise plan are often recommended to prevent a recurring attack.

Sometimes a pulmonary embolism can cause these symptoms, although this is more common with preexisting conditions and is less likely than the other potential causes. An embolism refers to a blood clot that sets up in the lungs. The clot reduces blood and oxygen flow to the lungs, resulting in less getting to the rest of the body. If this condition is suspected, medical care is required because it is potentially life threatening without proper treatment.

Since most of these conditions are hard to differentiate from one another without proper testing, any chest pain accompanied by shortness of breath, tightening in the chest, pain in the right arm or neck, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, or dizziness should be treated as a medical emergency. Not all symptoms have to be present to indicate a heart attack or other serious condition, so any combination should be taken seriously.


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Post 3

@pastanaga - I would have thought there would be some way to tell on the spot whether someone is actually having a heart attack or real angina, as opposed to some other problem though. Those symptoms are commonly felt by people who are having a panic attack as well, and being shipped off for a suspected heart attack isn't really going to help their state of mind.

Post 2

@Mor - That's good practice for those doctors though. The last thing they will want is someone to mention chest pain and shortness of breath and for them to go untreated. The more quickly a heart attack is treated, the better the outcome. Even though they could probably detect some problems at a clinic, if there is a major problem it's always better to be at a well equipped hospital.

Post 1

Don't be surprised if you go to the doctor and report chest pain, if they rush you to the hospital. My mother has had numerous problems with her heart and lungs over the years and it happens without fail. Even if she feels perfectly fine otherwise, if she mentions chest pain the doctor will insist she take an ambulance to the nearest hospital and check into a bed.

Usually her chest pain symptoms will turn out to be some problem with her lungs rather than a symptom of a heart problem, but sometimes she'll end up trapped at the hospital for several days. I hope she never gets to the point where she's reluctant to report symptoms because she doesn't want an unnecessary stay in the hospital.

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