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What to Do If You Have Chest Pain

If You Have a History of Heart Disease, Take Chest Pain Seriously

"Everyday, nearly everyone experiences chest pain," says Jerry Gliklich, MD Professor of Medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons and a cardiologist at Columbia University Medical Center, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. "People need to know that chest pain is not necessarily a sign of a heart attack. Life would be miserable if each of us became hypervigilant about every single chest pain."

Sometimes, however, chest pain is a warning of a serious problem. "There are certain chest pains that should not be ignored," Dr. Gliklich says. "Angina pectoris, the sensation associated with heart attack, should be taken very seriously. The problem is that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish angina from a benign chest pain."

Trying to describe angina brings the reasons for confusion into sharp focus:

Dr. Gliklich suggests using the following guidelines in assessing chest pain:

Health Points, winter 2002

"The one rule about angina is that there are no hard and fast rules," Dr. Gliklich concludes. "There are classic presentations of angina, but it's a common disease, and common diseases often present in atypical ways. People with a history of heart disease should take chest pain even more seriously than others, because they are at higher risk for a heart attack."

Dr. Gliklich urges people to have a doctor they can call if they experience chest pain. "Call as quickly as possible, and let your doctor guide you," he says. "If your symptoms are frightening and you can't get through to a doctor, call an ambulance."

"If you can't reach a doctor, or if your angina is particularly severe or associated with shortness of breath and sweating, call 911 and go to the nearest hospital. Don't try to drive yourself anywhere – call 911."

Contact:Jerry Gliklich, MD

Columbia University Medical Center NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Patient Clinician Researcher