Heart care: The difference between chest pain and breast pain

When is chest pain associated with a heart attack?

This article is part of a series on the signs and symptoms of a heart attack in women. Several Norton Heart Care providers have come together to raise awareness and provide tips just for women. Because signs of heart attack can be different for women than men, it’s important to know what to look for and what to do to save your life or the life of someone close to you.

You probably already know that the most common sign of a heart attack is chest pain. Often described as an elephant sitting on your chest or someone tying a rope around your chest, the pain can be intense and knock you to your knees in some instances. However, research on women reveals that sometimes the pain is less intense and can be ignored or written off as something else or breast pain.

“Women may try to brush chest pain or discomfort off as breast pain instead,” said Theresa Byrd, R.N., patient educator with Norton Women’s Heart & Vascular Center. “What women need to know is that breast pain does occur, but there are few key differences to keep in mind.”

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Here’s what you need to know about breast pain:

  • Most cases of breast pain are classified as either cyclic or noncyclic. Cyclic breast pain mainly affects both breasts and can intensify during the two weeks leading up to the start of your period, then eases up afterward. Noncyclic primarily affects one breast in a localized area and is more common in women who have gone through menopause.
  • Breast pain usually is described as dull, a heavy ache, burning or sore.
  • It often is accompanied by breast swelling or lumpiness.

Chest pain associated with a heart attack:

  • Feels like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, tightness, fullness or pain in the center of the chest
  • Lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back
  • May be accompanied by other symptoms, such as shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea or vomiting, and back or jaw pain

If you think you or someone near you is having a heart attack, don’t wait to see if symptoms go away, and don’t try to drive yourself to the hospital. Always call 911 immediately. EMS can begin lifesaving treatment en route to the closest hospital.


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