Sharp Chest Pain: What it Means and When You Should See the Doctor

Dr. Kirk Laman: Wholehearted Cardiologist Health Pro August 25, 2009
  • Chest pain afflicts people of all ages.  It doesn’t make a distinction based on demographics or social position.  Having chest pain can unnerve a person. 

    The fear is that a heart blockage could be lurking around the corner, a blockage that could be the “big one”- the one that stops a person in their tracks.

    As a cardiologist I see people of all ages who develop chest pain.  Chest pains come in many sizes and shapes.  They might be experienced as fullness, heaviness, an aching, a drawing, burning, squeezing, fluttering, and many, many other ways.

    One very common presentation for chest pain is that of a sharp chest pain.   Sharp can be perceived as stabbing, like a needle or a knife is piercing the skin.


    Do you have this type of chest pain?  Do you experience a stabbing feeling of pain in the chest?

    If you do then know that you’re in good company.  You don’t need to think you’re strange or odd.  Most people at one time or another in their life become afflicted with such types of sharp chest pains. 

    A good thing to know is that pain that is sharp, like needle is not often due to heart blockages.  Particularly, if the pain is worse with movement or breathing rarely indicates coronary heart disease.

    Pain that gets worse or better with a change in position or movement most commonly indicates that the ribs, muscles, cartilage, or lungs are involved.  This isn’t to say that such pain isn’t important.  No sharp chest pain can occur with serious conditions.

    A blood clot in the lung can cause a sharp pain.   Pneumonia or lung infections can produce sharp pains that are worse with movement.  Fluid the fills the sac surrounding the heart called the pericardium can be sharp in nature.

    If you’re having sharp pain you shouldn’t ignore your symptoms.

    Indeed women with heart blockages sometimes present with sharp pain.  As a general rule, however, the pain is not worse with movement or pressing on the chest. 

    In fact women often have different symptoms in their presentation of heart disease.  Check out this article if you're a woman and think you might have a heart condition.

    Sign’s that sharp chest pain isn’t a heart blockage:

    •    Sharp chest pains that get worse with taking a breath
    •    Sharp chest pain that is very short in duration - just a few seconds
    •    Sharp stabbing pains that are worse when you press on the chest
    •    When movement aggravates your sharp pains

    Remember, I’m not saying that sharp pains are not serious.  As I mentioned some fairly serious conditions can cause a stabbing pain in the chest.

    It’s best to check with you doctor if you’re having chest pain.

    He/she will need to do a thorough history, find out about your cardiac risk factors, and perform a physical exam.

    Yet, sharp chest pain doesn’t have to mean you’re going to have the “big one.”  It might be a rib that’s out of alignment.

    Check with your doctor.  They’ll have the answers.