Rib Strain vs Heart Attack with Chest Pain

I have written this article because, over the years, I’ve lost count of how many times clients have attended with acute rib strains (which can be very painful) worrying that they are having a heart attack.

Identifying the difference between a rib strain and a heart attack

Often clients attend saying they just sneezed or twisted and now they can’t breathe in properly. Perhaps they have chest pain leading them to believe they are having a heart attack!

Maybe you just sat twisted for a while, or whilst you were carrying in the shopping bags you just overloaded? Acute Mid back pain, or rib strains can be excruciatingly painful, something similar to having fractured a rib. Twisting and turning causes agony, and you can’t take a deep breath in. Perhaps you’re worried you’re having a heart attack, you’ve already been to A&E and had your heart checked out, or you’re considering this. If you’re worried, you can look at my article Should I go to A&E with my back pain? – in short, stop, and give us a call 📞first. It may be necessary, but we will advise if need be.

It’s not to say that there isn’t something more serious, but commonly if you’re in good shape, mid-back/rib strains are well treated. In fact, I strained my ribs recently after a table tennis lesson, when I was encouraged to twist more. Silly me, I was only making sure my game improves so my son doesn’t beat me that easily… It was a good reminder for me, despite how painful it was. Fortunately, it did settle quickly with some treatment and care.

Below is a guide to the differences between rib pain and a heart attack. If in doubt, please 📞 call us.

Rib Pain

Musculo-skeletal injury or strain is the main cause of rib or chest pain that is not heart related.

You may have had an injury, pulled a muscle, bruised or fractured a rib, had some kind of accident or sports injury. There may well be muscle spasm or inflamed cartilage. However, it can also be an innocuous strain; perhaps you slept twisted or fell asleep on the couch, and because you can’t remember any injury, you mistake the pain for a heart attack.

Other causes of non-heart-related chest pain include: Oesophageal conditions such as acidic reflux, cancer, gastrointestinal pain, or lung pain such as pneumonia or pleurisy. These can include coughing and difficulty in breathing, wheeziness and anxiety.

Symptoms of Musculo-skeletal (MSK)-related Rib Pain 

  1. Pinpointed chest pain. If a sharp pain seems to be coming from a very specific location. 
  2. Pain moves about, varies left to right, which may include down the arm, on different days. 
  3. Pain on twisting and moving. 
  4. Pain when you take a deep breath in. This is spasm of the intercostal muscles – between the ribs, that prevent the ribs from separating on inspiration. It can be very sharp pain, and worrying. 
  5. No signs of being medically unwell, such as cold sweat, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, vomiting. 

Heart Attack

A heart attack happens when oxygen doesn’t reach the heart muscle. The flow of blood is blocked, and this can damage the heart muscle. Medically, it is called a myocardial infarction. 

Symptoms of Heart Attack 

Main symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath 
  • Dizziness or light-headedness 
  • Sweating 
  • Nausea or vomiting 
  • Chest pain radiating to the neck, jaw or arms – but doesn’t move about 
  • Pain is dull and diffusely spread in the chest area 
  • Crushing chest pain, like a pressure, squeezing 
  • Tiredness and fatigue 
  • Irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia), rapid heartbeat or palpitations 

What to do in an Emergency 

If you are worried about having a heart attack and have any of these symptoms, call NHS 111 straight away. Getting treatment straight away for a heart attack can save your life. 

Don’t wait to see if the symptoms go away. 

Don’t try to drive yourself to the emergency room – call an ambulance. Please be safe.