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Retrosternal chest pain: Causes and when to speak with a doctor

Jun 03, 2024Jun 03, 2024

Retrosternal chest pain can occur for various reasons, including cardiac or heart-related issues and noncardiac conditions, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Retrosternal chest pain refers to pain that occurs in the space behind the sternum. It is a more specific way to refer to chest pain.

Chest pain can stem from various conditions that affect the heart, lungs, muscles, skeletal system, or gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

This article reviews several potential causes of retrosternal chest pain and when to consult a doctor.

Issues in the GI tract can lead to chest pain and may include gastritis and GERD.

Gastritis refers to inflammation of the stomach, with symptoms that include discomfort or pain in the chest. This condition may be acute or chronic, and its underlying causes can include infections and high alcohol intake.

GERD is a chronic medical condition where the contents of the stomach flow into the esophagus, or food pipe.

Symptoms include:

GERD accounts for 20–60% of chest pain that is not due to cardiac problems.

GI-related chest pain can also stem from issues with the muscles in the esophagus, such as:

Another possible cause is food pipe sensitivity, where acid or pressure causes discomfort or pain.

Learn more about a range of gastrointestinal conditions.

Conditions that affect the skeleton, muscles, or tendons of the chest can also lead to chest pain.

Costochondritis causes inflammation in the cartilage of the chest. It can result in chest pain that feels like a heart attack. Costochondritis is not a medical emergency, but it is best to seek medical attention to rule out a heart attack.

Pain behind the sternum can also stem from strains and other injuries that affect the chest.

A person should speak with a doctor if they do not know the source of the pain.

What are some more causes of rib cage pain?

Lung problems can lead to retrosternal chest pain in some people.

They include:

Learn more about lung cancer through our dedicated hub: A deeper look at lung cancer.

Problems with the heart can result in chest pain. Examples of these cardiac issues include:

Heart attacks occur when there is a lack of blood supply to the heart. Symptoms include:

If someone has these symptoms:

If a person stops breathing before emergency services arrive, perform manual chest compressions:

Use an automatic external defibrillator (AED) available in many public places:

A panic attack is when a person experiences sudden fear or discomfort or feels as if they are losing control, with or without an apparent trigger or cause.

Physical symptoms can resemble those of a heart attack and include:

How do you stop a panic attack?

A person should seek medical attention if they have chest pain they cannot explain. A doctor can help determine the underlying cause and provide appropriate treatment.

Anyone who has symptoms of a heart attack needs immediate medical attention. Signs of a heart attack include:

If these signs and symptoms occur, someone should call 911.

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Retrosternal chest pain can occur for several reasons, including heart, lung, muscle, and GI issues. It typically causes pain in the center of the chest.

A person needs to discuss chest pain with a doctor. Additionally, if anyone has symptoms of a heart attack, someone should call 911 immediately.

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