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27th July, 202112 min read

What can cause a sharp stabbing pain in my chest?

Medical reviewer:Dr Adiele Hoffman
Author:Dr Ann Nainan
Last reviewed: 12/07/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Overview

Chest pain is any type of pain that you feel between your lower neck and tummy area – you may feel it in the middle of your chest, or on the left or right side of your chest. In some cases, this pain feels like a sudden sharp pain that goes away quickly (but may return) and when this happens, it’s often described as a stabbing pain.

Sharp stabbing chest pain is a common symptom that affects most people, young or old, and it’s usually caused by less serious conditions like heartburn or a rib injury.. But sometimes, it may be a sign of a more serious condition that needs urgent medical attention.

If you have chest pain that’s new, doesn’t go away or feels very serious, see a doctor as soon as possible, especially if you have a history of heart or lung disease.

Common causes of a sharp pain in your chest

Many different things can cause a sharp stabbing pain in your chest, from muscle injuries to problems with your lungs, stomach or heart. This means that it’s hard to list every single cause of sharp chest pain in this article, but here are some of the main ones.

Heartburn

If you have a sharp stabbing pain, or burning sensation in the middle of your chest that lasts for a few minutes or a few hours, you may have heartburn. Lots of people get heartburn from time to time, but it isn’t a problem with your heart – it’s caused by acid reflux, which is when your tummy acid travels up into your throat.

Other common symptoms include:

  • a sour taste in your mouth from the tummy acid
  • indigestion
  • feeling sick (nausea)
  • a tight or swollen tummy (bloated stomach)
  • burping
  • an ongoing cough that's often worse at night – but this isn’t as common

The causes of heartburn aren’t clear, but sometimes, it’s caused by being overweight, food and drinks like coffee and alcohol, stress, smoking or pregnancy. Read more about the causes of heartburn and which foods may cause heartburn.

Chest infection

A chest infection like bronchitis or pneumonia is caused by an infection of your lungs, often after you’ve had a cold or the flu. Some chest infections may be mild and clear up on their own, but others like pneumonia can be serious and need treatment.

Other than a sharp stabbing pain in your chest, the main symptoms of a chest infection are:

  • coughing and bringing up phlegm (thick mucus)
  • a fever
  • difficulty catching your breath or breathing faster
  • feeling tired
  • sore muscles
  • headaches

These symptoms are also signs of COVID-19 – read more about the symptoms of COVID-19.

Injured ribs or costochondritis

A sharp stabbing pain in your chest may mean you’ve hurt your ribs. This may be in the form of a broken rib after a fall, severe coughing or a blow to your chest. Or you could have costochondritis, which happens when some of the joints in your rib cage get inflamed.

The pain you’ll feel in your chest when you have either of these usually gets worse when you move or breathe deeply.

It isn’t clear what causes costochondritis, but it could be triggered by an accident, like a fall or a car accident, coughing a lot, a chest infection or lifting heavy objects.

Heart attack

A heart attack is a potentially life-threatening medical emergency that can seriously damage your heart muscle. It happens when the blood supply to your heart muscle is suddenly cut off, usually by a clot that blocks a blood vessel (artery) in your heart.

You may feel a sharp stabbing pain, tightness or squeezing in the middle of your chest when you have a heart attack. Other symptoms may include:

  • pain that spreads to other parts of your body, including to your arms, neck, back, tummy and jaw
  • feeling dizzy, very unwell or faint
  • finding it hard to catch your breath or talk
  • feeling very anxious, like you’re having a panic attack
  • feeling sick (nausea) or being sick (vomiting)
  • sweating

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the main cause of heart attacks. Your chance of getting CHD is high if you smoke, are overweight or have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes.

Angina

Angina can cause chest pain that feels sharp, stabbing, tight or heavy. Its symptoms are very similar to the signs of a heart attack. They’re triggered by physical activity or stress, but usually stop after a few minutes of resting.

Angina is caused by not enough blood flowing into your heart muscle, because your arteries have narrowed (rather than become blocked like with a heart attack).

In its early stages, it’s not usually life-threatening. But you should see a doctor if you think you have angina, as it could mean you’re at risk of a heart attack or stroke. Read more about the symptoms, causes and types of angina.

Pericarditis

Pericarditis is when the fluid-filled lining around your heart (pericardium) becomes inflamed. It usually causes a sudden sharp stabbing pain in your chest and a fever. It may get worse when you lie down, cough, swallow or breathe deeply, and you may have trouble breathing.

It’s not usually serious, but it can cause serious health problems if it isn’t treated. It’s not known exactly why people get pericarditis, but it’s usually caused by a viral infection. Read more about the causes and types of pericarditis.

Less common causes

Sometimes, other causes of a sharp stabbing pain in your chest may include:

When to see a doctor about a sharp stabbing pain in your chest

If you’re worried about any chest pain or not sure why you have it, it’s best to speak to a doctor.

Go to an emergency department or call an ambulance if you have sudden chest pain and:

  • it’s spreading toward your arms, back, neck or jaw
  • it’s hard to catch your breath or talk
  • you feel warm, sweaty or have a fever
  • it's been going on for more than 15 minutes
  • your chest feels tight and heavy
  • you feel like being sick
  • you feel unwell, dizzy or faint
  • your symptoms are getting worse

See a doctor as soon as possible if you have chest pain and:

  • it keeps coming and going
  • your pain goes away quickly, but you’re worried
  • you’re coughing up blood, or there’s blood in your phlegm
  • you’ve been coughing for more than 3 weeks
  • you’re pregnant
  • a weakened immune system from a condition like diabetes or cancer
  • a new rash
  • you can feel your heart racing (palpitations)
  • you’ve got heartburn that isn’t getting better with self-care

Treatment for a sharp stabbing pain in your chest

The treatment for a sharp stabbing pain in your chest depends on the cause. You can try to treat some conditions at home, but other causes are more serious and will need medical attention or emergency help.

Heartburn

If you have heartburn, try these self-care measures:

If these lifestyle changes and medicines don’t work, or you have heartburn nearly every day for more than 3 weeks, or other symptoms like food getting stuck in your throat, vomiting a lot, or losing weight without meaning to, see a doctor as it can be a sign of something more serious.

To treat your heartburn, a doctor may suggest other medicines, or sometimes, surgery where the bottom of your food pipe is tightened to stop tummy acid from moving up into your throat.

Read more about how to get rid of heartburn and which foods and drinks help with heartburn.

A chest infection

If you have a chest infection, the symptoms usually clear up on their own in about 7 to 10 days. But the cough and phlegm can last for 3 weeks.

To treat a chest infection at home:

  • rest and drink lots of water
  • sleep with extra pillows to raise your head up so you can breathe more easily
  • take simple painkillers – speak to a pharmacist or doctor for guidance on how to safely get and use these medicines. A pharmacist may recommend other medications to help with your symptoms

See a doctor if your symptoms don’t improve or get worse. They may give you antibiotics if you have a bacterial (not a viral) infection.

Read more about treating a chest infection and natural remedies for the flu.

Injured ribs or costochondritis

When you have a broken rib or costochondritis, it usually gets better on its own after a few weeks, although it can last longer. There’s no specific treatment for a bruised or broken rib – rib injuries are usually left to heal naturally.

To help your ribs heal, try:

  • simple painkillers like paracetamol
  • heat or ice packs
  • gentle stretching and rest if needed
  • avoiding sports or exercises that make your symptoms worse

If this doesn't help, see a doctor – they may recommend physiotherapy. If you have costochondritis, steroid injections may help too.

A heart attack

Heart attacks are a serious medical emergency, so you’ll need to go to hospital for treatment. To get blood flowing back to your heart as quickly as possible, you may be given medication to break down the blood clot, or you may need surgery.

After a heart attack, you’ll stay in hospital so your heart can be closely monitored, and when it’s been stabilised, you can usually go home to recover further. Your recovery may take several months.

To reduce your risk of having another heart attack and to help your heart recover, you’ll need:

Read more about treatment, recovery and how to prevent a heart attack.

Angina

See a doctor if you have any symptoms of angina, as you’ll need treatment to stop angina attacks and reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Most people with angina need to take several medicines, which include:

  • medication for when you have an angina attack – called glyceryl trinitrate
  • medication to prevent angina – like beta blockers
  • medication to prevent heart attacks and strokes – like statins or blood pressure tablets

If these medicines don’t work, you may need surgery.

You’ll also need to make healthy lifestyle changes, including eating a healthy diet and cutting down on salt, stopping smoking, drinking less alcohol, losing weight if you’re overweight and getting fit.

Read more about the treatment and prevention of angina.

Pericarditis

See a doctor if you think you have pericarditis, as it can become serious if it isn’t treated. Treatment depends on why your heart lining is inflamed and may include:

  • painkillers, like ibuprofen or colchicine
  • antibiotics – if the cause is a bacterial infection
  • steroids

Read more about treatment for pericarditis.

How long will it take for a sharp stabbing pain in my chest to get better?

There are many reasons why you may get a sharp stabbing pain in your chest – and how long it takes for this chest pain to go away will depend on the cause. If you’re worried about chest pain that’s new, doesn’t go away or feels serious, it’s best to see a doctor as soon as possible, particularly if you have a history of heart or lung disease.

Some conditions like heartburn or chest infections can improve with self-care at home or with medication from a pharmacy. But there are more serious conditions like a heart attack that need urgent medical attention in a hospital – a heart attack can take many months to recover from and it’s important that you don’t rush your recovery.

Your health questions answered

  • How do I know if my chest pain is serious?

    Chest pain is common and isn’t usually the sign of something serious like a heart attack or another heart condition. But it’s best to see a doctor if you have chest pain to make sure it isn’t something serious. If you think you’re having a heart attack, call an ambulance immediately. Signs of a heart attack include sudden chest pain that feels tight or heavy, spreads towards your arms, back, neck or jaw, lasts more than 15 minutes, and sweating, finding it hard to breathe or being sick.

Key takeaways

  • most sharp stabbing pain in your chest isn’t serious and isn’t usually caused by a heart problem
  • there are many possible causes of a sharp stabbing pain in your chest, including heartburn, chest infections, rib and muscles strains, angina and heart attacks
  • some causes of a sharp stabbing pain in your chest can be treated at home, but other causes will need urgent medical attention
  • if you have any symptoms of a heart attack, call an ambulance or go to hospital immediately
  • if you’re worried about a sharp stabbing pain in your chest that’s new, doesn’t go away or feels serious, see a doctor
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