What Causes Chest Cramps?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Chest cramps are a common, though often frightening, symptom with a wide variety of causes. The cramps, which can range from a dull, all-over ache to a sharp stabbing pain, can be mild or severe, and may last for extended periods of times or only seconds. While chest cramps are often due to minor issues such as heartburn, health experts often recommend seeing a doctor if chest pains occur, since they can sometimes be a sign of serious or even life-threatening health problems.

Asthma can cause chest pain.
Asthma can cause chest pain.

Less serious causes of chest cramps include heartburn, muscular tears, or broken bones. Heartburn is caused by an overflow of stomach acid into the esophagus, which can result in severe pains in the chest but is usually easily treated with antacids. Muscular tears can occur due to injury or strenuous exercise, frequently presenting as a dull ache throughout the upper body or sharp pains caused when performing specific movements. A broken rib or breastbone can also cause serious chest cramps and requires prompt medical attention.

Pain in the chest can be a symptom of a heart attack.
Pain in the chest can be a symptom of a heart attack.

Chest pains may be caused by respiratory conditions, such as asthma, bronchitis, or pneumonia. Typically, pain occurs when inhaling and may feel like intense pressure. Respiratory illness can also cause coughing fits, which may cause chest muscles to ache and throb.

Bruises or breaks in the rib cage can cause chest pain.
Bruises or breaks in the rib cage can cause chest pain.

Some people experience chest pains or cramps as a result of emotional distress, anxiety, or panic disorders. In extreme cases, patients may experience a condition known as stress cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome, where acute stress causes symptoms almost identical to those of a heart attack. Since this can be a life-threatening issue, individuals that develop chest cramps while under severe stress are often advised to seek immediate treatment.

Emotional distress may cause chest cramping to occur.
Emotional distress may cause chest cramping to occur.

Angina is a medical condition that frequently results in severe cramping throughout the chest. Caused by a variety of systemic problems, angina refers to the pain caused when the heart is not able to get enough oxygen. Common causes of angina include narrowing of the coronary arteries and arterial spasms. Chest cramps associated with this condition often are quite strong and may cause the shoulders and jaw to ache.

Chest pains can be a symptom of a heart attack, also known as a coronary thrombosis. This life-threatening condition is frequently the result of a blocked artery that prevents blood or oxygen from reaching the heart. Cramps that may indicate a heart attack often involve shooting pain down the left side of the body. Immediate medical care is often vital to survival.

Heartburn can cause chest cramps.
Heartburn can cause chest cramps.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


If I bend at the waist while sitting, I sometimes get a chest cramp. I can feel it knot and it takes a moment to ease.


One more cause of chest muscle cramping is upper spinal stenosis, usually the result of degenerative changes after trauma.


I was running (I'm a teenager 15 years old) and it feels like there's something sitting on my chest and I get these weird cramps around my rib cage. What is it?


I think my chest cramps are from a pulled muscle. I lifted a really heavy box up into the attic and was almost lying on my back to get the darned thing up there. I know I pulled something because there was an immediate severe pain in the upper left side of my chest. That was yesterday. Today I have been getting really bad cramps throughout my whole chest. If it continues to be an issue, I will see the doc.


I've been walking regularly and this morning I started off with a jog and hardly few meters away and I felt like there's been catch in my left side near the breast. And every time i hold my breath while lifting something for a few seconds I have severe pain and it causes me a lot of stress. Can someone let me know what needs to be done in such cases to recover fast.


I can totally sympathize with the chest muscle pain. I once got the bright idea to start working out my pectorals, and instead of starting slow like you're supposed to, I just jumped right in.

The next day I was in agony. My chest muscles were so sore; I could barely move. It took me a week to finally get back to normal.

Just one more reason to listen when exercise experts say "Start slow!"


What if you have leg and arm pain that is sometimes interspersed with chest pain? I'm young, so I don't think that I have any kind of heart issue, but sometimes I get cramps in my legs and then it seems to move up into my chest.

I don't have any other symptoms, but I'm still kind of worried because I know that anything having to do with the chest merits some concern.

What could be causing this?


I used to get the worst chest cramps when breathing -- I had had a case of bronchitis that ended up lasting for seven months all told, and when it was finally over my ribs and chest muscles were so sore that whenever I breathed in it was just terrible.

I finally got over it, but let me tell you, muscle cramps in the chest area are the absolute worst.

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