Chest cramps are a common, though often frightening, symptom with a wide variety of causes. The cramps, which can range from a dull, all-over ache to a sharp stabbing pain, can be mild or severe, and may last for extended periods of times or only seconds. While chest cramps are often due to minor issues such as heartburn, health experts often recommend seeing a doctor if chest pains occur, since they can sometimes be a sign of serious or even life-threatening health problems.
Less serious causes of chest cramps include heartburn, muscular tears, or broken bones. Heartburn is caused by an overflow of stomach acid into the esophagus, which can result in severe pains in the chest but is usually easily treated with antacids. Muscular tears can occur due to injury or strenuous exercise, frequently presenting as a dull ache throughout the upper body or sharp pains caused when performing specific movements. A broken rib or breastbone can also cause serious chest cramps and requires prompt medical attention.
Chest pains may be caused by respiratory conditions, such as asthma, bronchitis, or pneumonia. Typically, pain occurs when inhaling and may feel like intense pressure. Respiratory illness can also cause coughing fits, which may cause chest muscles to ache and throb.
Some people experience chest pains or cramps as a result of emotional distress, anxiety, or panic disorders. In extreme cases, patients may experience a condition known as stress cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome, where acute stress causes symptoms almost identical to those of a heart attack. Since this can be a life-threatening issue, individuals that develop chest cramps while under severe stress are often advised to seek immediate treatment.
Angina is a medical condition that frequently results in severe cramping throughout the chest. Caused by a variety of systemic problems, angina refers to the pain caused when the heart is not able to get enough oxygen. Common causes of angina include narrowing of the coronary arteries and arterial spasms. Chest cramps associated with this condition often are quite strong and may cause the shoulders and jaw to ache.
Chest pains can be a symptom of a heart attack, also known as a coronary thrombosis. This life-threatening condition is frequently the result of a blocked artery that prevents blood or oxygen from reaching the heart. Cramps that may indicate a heart attack often involve shooting pain down the left side of the body. Immediate medical care is often vital to survival.