Chest pain is a well-known heart attack symptom. It’s also one of the key symptoms of pericarditis, inflammation around the heart, that you should know.
Heart attacks are often heralded by chest pain, but there are other potentially serious medical conditions that also cause severe chest discomfort. A case in point: the sometimes severe, sharp chest pain resulting from pericarditis.
Pericarditis is a condition marked by irritation and inflammation of the pericardium, the sac-like, thin membrane surrounding your heart and holding it in place, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute explains. Pericarditis is occasionally caused by a heart attack or heart surgery, injuries, and even certain medications. The vast majority of pericarditis cases, however, are the result of viral infections and, to a lesser extent, bacterial and fungal infections.
The condition can be acute, with symptoms of pericarditis developing suddenly over a few days to weeks. This form of pericarditis often resolves quickly. However, the condition can be chronic instead of acute, developing over many weeks or months, and may need ongoing, prolonged treatment. Both acute and chronic pericarditis can interfere with your heart’s normal rhythm and function and, rarely, lead to death.
Although pericarditis is most likely to occur in men between the ages of 20 and 50, the condition can develop at any age, the American Heart Association (AHA) points out. That’s why it’s important to understand the symptoms of pericarditis and seek medical care if you or anyone in your family, regardless of age or sex, shows possible signs of the condition.
Look: Understanding chest pain symptoms of pericarditis
Your pericardium is made up of two membrane layers that hold a small amount of fluid. Normally, this pericardial fluid prevents friction when your heart beats and helps prevent infection of your heart, too. But, if the layers become inflamed, they rub against each other, causing chest pain. In fact, research shows about 85 to 90 percent of people with acute or chronic pericarditis experience chest pain.
Stabbing and sharp chest pain that comes on suddenly is the most common symptom of the acute type of pericarditis. It’s often felt in the left side or middle of the chest, behind the breastbone, and can radiate into one or both shoulders and into the neck and jaw. However, some people with acute or chronic pericarditis experience pressure and a dull ache in the chest instead of intense pain.
Symptoms of pericarditis chest pain include worsening discomfort when you lie down or take deep breaths. On the other hand, sitting up and leaning forwards tends to relieve the discomfort.
We can’t emphasize this enough: Symptoms of pericarditis include more than pain
Although pericarditis is almost always marked by chest pain, there can be additional symptoms, too. For instance, because a viral infection may have caused the heart inflammation, it’s not unusual to experience a cough, runny nose, or gastrointestinal symptoms a few weeks before you develop chest discomfort, the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute points out, and you may have ongoing malaise from the virus.
Other signs and symptoms of pericarditis can include:
- Heart palpitations (feeling your heart is beating too fast, too hard, or skipping beats)
- Low-grade fever
- Shortness of breath
- A dry cough
- Abdominal or leg swelling (primarily in severe, chronic pericarditis)
- Low blood pressure
Bottom line: Seek medical care for symptoms of pericarditis
While many cases of pericarditis resolve on their own, serious complications can develop. So, if you have any symptoms of pericarditis — even if you are not experiencing chest pain — it’s important to see your doctor.
To diagnose the condition, your physician will use a stethoscope to listen for abnormal sounds in your chest, notably a pericardial rub (the sound of the pericardium rubbing against the outer part of your heart). Other common tests, including an EKG (electrocardiogram), echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart), and chest x-ray, can help reveal signs of pericarditis, too. A CT chest exam (detailed images of your heart) can help rule out other causes of chest pain, such as a pulmonary embolus.
Remember, the sooner you are diagnosed, the sooner you can receive proper treatment which, depending on your individual case, may involve simply watching waiting and rest or more aggressive medical therapies.
Obviously, the chest pain of pericarditis can be similar to a heart attack. However, there’s no way to distinguish the two conditions on your own. In addition, a life-threatening blood clot in the lungs (pulmonary embolus) can also cause similar symptoms. So, don’t try to self-diagnose, the AHA urges. Seek immediate emergency care if you are experiencing chest pain.
December 16, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN