Having heaviness in your chest is certainly alarming. This is one of the primary signs of a heart attack, however, it does not always mean that you are having a heart attack. If you experience chest heaviness, it is a good idea to always seek medical attention to be on the safe side. It is better to know for sure exactly what is causing it.
Of course, a heart attack could cause chest heaviness. Many heart attack survivors describe the heaviness as “an elephant sitting on my chest.” However, there are several other potential causes that are not as serious – in terms of being life-threatening – as a heart attack.
Panic attacks can result in heaviness in the chest. In fact, severe panic attacks are often mistaken for a heart attack because the symptoms can be quite similar. During a panic attack, your chest can feel heavy and tight, your heart can race, you can sweat and shake, and have that feeling of impending doom that sometimes comes along with a heart attack.
Angina is a chest pain that can feel like heaviness for some people. This is not a condition, but a symptom that can arise from a variety of cardiac issues. Some of these include high blood pressure, esophageal spasm, arterial plaque, not enough blood getting to the heart and inflammation of the chest wall. Angina can also present alongside a heart attack.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can lead to a heaviness in the chest and some with this condition notice this most after having a meal. This condition is characterized by stomach acid and food refluxing from the stomach to the esophagus. To help prevent the chest heaviness and other signs of GERD, it is a good idea to rest after eating (but do not lie down) and not eat too quickly.
Asthma is a very serious condition and that difficulty breathing that comes along with an attack can result in a feeling of heaviness in your chest.
You can injure your rib cage or chest wall and experience chest heaviness because of this. Anything from a trapped muscle, to a pulled muscle to blunt force to the chest can result in this.
Lastly, there is aortic aneurysm and this is very life-threatening. This means that any part of the aortic wall has been weakened and sort of balloons out. This can burst and be fatal. Chest heaviness can occur and this condition needs immediate treatment.
Signs and Symptoms
Along with heaviness in your chest, other signs and symptoms can also present. Of course, most of these will ultimately depend on what is causing your chest heaviness. These can include:
• Chest tightness
• Pain in your back, arms, jaw, neck or shoulder
• Shortness of breath
The first thing a doctor will talk about is the necessary lifestyle changes. These will ultimately depend on the cause, but in general, patients should work toward the following:
• Stop smoking
• Get diabetes under control
• Get to and maintain a healthy weight
• Pace yourself and do not over-exert
• Eat small meals more frequently as opposed to a few large meals each day
• Work toward relieving stress
• Eat a healthy diet
• Start a regular exercise routine
Two of the most common medications for chest tightness – when it is related to the cardiovascular system – are aspirin and nitrates. You have surely watched commercials that talk about how aspirin can help during a heart attack, but it can also benefit certain coronary conditions before anything severe happens. Nitrates are used to alleviate the heaviness by widening and relaxing your blood vessels so that your heart muscle gets more blood.
Other medications that may be prescribed depending on the cause include:
• Proton pump inhibitors (GERD)
• Anti-anxiety medications (panic attacks)
• Calcium channel blockers
• Angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors
In many cases, the lifestyle changes and medications are sufficient in controlling your symptoms. However, if there is a more serious cardiovascular issue at play surgery, such as coronary artery bypass surgery or angioplasty, may be necessary.
The preventative measures are similar to the lifestyle changes. Now, if you begin these now you will lower risk of ever experiencing chest heaviness. If you have had it in the past, these can lower your risk of experiencing it again.
These preventative measures include:
• Quitting smoking
• Monitoring your blood pressure
• Monitoring your blood sugar
• Having your cholesterol checked once a year
• Exercising regularly per your doctor’s advice
• Reducing your stress
• Maintaining a healthy weight
• Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet