It’s difficult to hear the words “chest pain”—let alone experience the sensation—and not immediately think of life-threatening heart conditions. After all, cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of death in the United States, and one of its primary symptoms is tightness in the chest, says Steven M. Goldberg, M.D., chair of the Department of Medicine, ProHEALTH Care, board-certified in cardiology and internal medicine. “Although the death rate [for heart disease] has been declining in the United States in the past 30 years or so, it is still the most common killer in America and most developed countries,” says Dr. Goldberg.
But having tightness in your chest is also an extremely common sensation—one that’s often tough to attribute to a single, definite cause, he adds.
Regardless, you should always take tightness in your chest seriously. Here’s what could be causing that feeling and how to handle it.
Tightness in the chest can sometimes be a sign of a breathing or lung health issue, says Lawrence Shulman, D.O., chief medical officer and chief of the division of pulmonary and sleep medicine at ProHEALTH Care. For example, asthma is a respiratory condition in which chronic inflammation narrows the lungs’ airways, causing shortness of breath and a “general, vague sense of tightness” in the chest and back, explains Dr. Goldberg.
However, there’s an important distinction between asthma and more serious causes of chest pain: Asthma-related discomfort is usually fleeting, rather than constant—like when you try to take a deep breath and briefly find yourself coughing or wheezing, explains Dr. Goldberg. And if the tightness in the chest tends to come on when you’re coughing at night, during exercise, and/or when you’re laughing, that’s another probable sign it could be asthma, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
While asthma is a pretty manageable condition, tightness in the chest can also be a potential sign of more serious, progressive lung diseases (such as emphysema), says Dr. Shulman. These conditions are almost always accompanied by other respiratory symptoms, like coughing, wheezing, and general difficulty breathing, he adds. Be sure to see your primary care doctor ASAP if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.