Before I get into the generalities, let me
tell you I understand!
It's not fun to wonder about this. I know that myself.
The last few days I had some upper body / chest pain, and I was
really concerned about it! The first time it happened, I was driving
my car thinking, is this a heart attack symptom? I realized I
didn't have my cell phone with me to call 911 or my wife!
But I ran through an internal checklist-
- Is the pain in the center of my chest? Not exactly, but close...
- Does it feel like an elephant is sitting on my chest? No,
it's not that heavy...
- Do I have a sense of dread? No, just concerned about what
- Is there any radiating pain down my right arm? Nope.
- How's my heartrate? I felt the jugular artery in my neck,
and it seemed normal.
Ok, I thought, it's probably not a heart attack symptom, but
what is it?
Well, when we medical professionals are confronted with something
like chest pain (also called angina), we have to know which diseases
it could turn out to be. It might be a heart attack symptom, or
pancreatitis, or GERD, or intercostal chondritis, and so on. We
have a mental list of the possible diseases, and we do what's
called differential diagnosis to determine which one it is. We
do that differential by both asking questions and using objective
information like the patient's physical status, appearance, lab
tests, visual imaging, etc.
Instead of just listing the possible diagnoses, I'll give you
a table of the diseases and their characteristic symptoms and
presentations (see below the table for abbreviations, which I
had to use to fit the table in!). Note that MI means myocardial
infarction, and is the same as heart attack.
Heart Attack Symptom Table (Chest Pain Diseases)