How to Relieve Chest Tightness

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A tight feeling in your chest can be an upsetting experience, especially when it comes on all of a sudden. The symptom itself doesn’t necessarily mean a serious medical problem, but it could.

Chest tightness can have quite a few different causes. Among them are infection, injury, pulmonary (lung) conditions, cardiovascular (heart) conditions, gastrointestinal (digestive system) problems, and psychological issues.

This article details the possible causes of a tight feeling in the chest. It will can help you decide when to see a healthcare provider or when symptoms are serious enough to call 911.

Woman feeling chest tightness

boonchai wedmakawand / Moment / Getty Images

What Is Tightness in the Chest?

Chest tightness, also called chest pressure or chest pain, can be defined as any discomfort that's found between your lower neck and upper abdomen.

Chest tightness can vary in terms of how it feels and how often it occurs. The tight feeling may be felt all over the chest area. It also can be located in one spot or several spots in the chest.

While some may describe it as a feeling of fullness, others may say they feel like there is weight on the chest. Some people may experience it only once. Others who have certain conditions, like asthma, may have it more often.

It's common for people to think they are having a heart attack when they have chest tightness, but that is only one possible reason for this symptom.

When to Call 911 for Chest Tightness

Unexplained chest tightness along with any of the following requires immediate medical attention. Don't hesitate to call 911.

·  Burning feeling

·  Cold sweats

·  Crushing feeling of weight on your chest

·  Difficulty breathing

·  Nausea

·  Pain that radiates to your jaw, shoulder blades, or left arm

·  Shortness of breath after bedrest or other inactivity

Causes of Chest Tightness

Research suggests the most common causes of chest pain and tightness are musculoskeletal (muscle and bone) issues. They are followed by cardiovascular disease and respiratory conditions.

Here's a review of these and the full range of possible causes of chest tightness.

Musculoskeletal Issues

In the United States, more than 7 million people seek emergency care for chest pain and tightness each year. The vast majority of these cases are not caused by a heart or lung condition.

In fact, up to half of all people who make office visits to a healthcare provider are diagnosed with a muscle and/or bone condition. Some common ones are covered here.

Muscle Strain 

If you’ve pulled a muscle—particularly in your chest, abdomen, or upper to middle back area—you may experience chest tightness and pain when active. In some cases, the strain may be severe enough to cause pain when breathing.

Rib Fracture

A rib fracture is a common injury that occurs when a bone or bones in your rib cage crack or break.

Rib fractures can cause severe chest pain. It may get worse when you move or cough. In some cases, the pain may be so intense that it causes chest pain and tightness.

Seek immediate medical attention if your fracture causes shortness of breath or a rapid heart rate.

Rest is important when nursing a rib fracture. It's important not to overdo it while allowing your break to heal.

Costochondritis

Costochondritis is inflammation of cartilage in the rib cage. It causes chest pain that may be felt in the middle and upper rib area on either side of your chest. The pain may get worse if you breathe deeply, move, or stretch. It can cause discomfort and tightness in the chest.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID)s, like Motrin (ibuprofen), and stretching exercises may provide some relief from the pain. Otherwise, your healthcare provider may give you narcotics or antidepressants to control the pain.

Recap

Rib fractures, pulled muscles, and other musculoskeletal injuries are the most common causes of chest tightness. Exercise and over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications can treat some conditions, while others require medical evaluation and treatment.

Infections

Infections like the common cold or something more serious, like shingles, can cause chest tightness due to mucus/fluid build-up, inflammation, or other concerns.

Congestion

If you’ve come down with a cold or the flu, you may be experiencing chest congestion. This is caused by excess mucus in your airways. It can restrict breathing and cause coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness.

In most cases, plenty of rest, fluids such as hot tea or water, and OTC medicines like Robitussin (dextromethorphan) or Mucinex (guaifenesin) can help relieve the congestion.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia causes inflammation of your lung’s air sacs, which can cause them to fill with fluid or pus.

This may cause symptoms such as fever, cough, chills, shortness of breath, and chest pain and/or tightness.

It is important to see your healthcare provider for a pneumonia diagnosis and treatment plan. 

COVID-19

COVID-19 is a viral infection that causes symptoms such as fever, dry cough, runny nose, congestion, and shortness of breath. Some people with COVID-19 have tightness in the chest.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you should seek immediate medical attention if your COVID-19 symptoms include chest tightness along with:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Bluish lips
  • Mental confusion
  • An inability to stay awake

Shingles

Shingles is an infection caused by the varicella zoster virus—the same virus that causes chickenpox. Symptoms include a painful rash on the body, usually the torso.

In some cases, the pain of shingles can be so intense that it may lead to feelings of tightness in the chest.

Antiviral medications and pain relievers, like NSAIDs, are often prescribed to help reduce the pain of shingles. Antibiotic creams for the skin are often prescribed to prevent a bacterial infection.

Recap

Infections that lead to chest tightness range from a simple cold to COVID-19. Common home remedies can help to relieve symptoms, but you may still need a precise diagnosis of the cause.

Lung Conditions

Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may immediately come to mind when you think of lung conditions that may cause chest tightness, but there are others—some of which require urgent medical attention.

Asthma

If you have asthma and are exposed to lung irritants or allergens, they may cause the airways to constrict and narrow. This leads to chest tightness, pain, and pressure. Other telltale symptoms of asthma include shortness of breath, wheezing, and cough.

You may be told to use an inhaler to relieve your symptoms. Studies show that albuterol inhalers can effectively ease chest discomfort and eliminate symptoms of an asthma attack.

COPD

Shortness of breath is the main symptom of COPD, but you may feel chest tightness or like something is wrapped around your chest—even while at rest.

COPD is often treated through the use of inhalers and nebulizers (machines that delivery medication as a mist) to help improve breathing. Corticosteroids and phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors are often used to reduce lung inflammation and COPD flare-ups.

Pulmonary Hypertension

Pulmonary hypertension (PH) is a progressive lung disease that causes the arteries that carry blood from the heart to the lungs to become narrow.

Symptoms of PH include shortness of breath from everyday activities, like walking up the stairs. Other symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, chest pain, and a tightness when strain is placed on the heart during activity.

There is no cure for pulmonary hypertension, but medications can help to manage it. They include calcium channel blockers to decrease blood pressure and diuretics to rid the body of excess fluid that puts pressure on the heart. Some patients may need oxygen to help them breathe easier.

Pleuritis

Pleuritis (also called pleurisy) is a condition that causes the pleura—the large, thin layer of tissue that separates your lungs from your chest wall—to become inflamed. Symptoms include sudden and sharp pain in the chest when breathing in or out.

This condition is often treated with NSAIDs such as ibuprofen. Your healthcare provider may use steroid drugs to reduce inflammation if the pain is severe.

Pneumothorax

Pneumothorax (collapsed lung) occurs when air escapes from the lung and fills up space between the lung and chest wall. The air puts pressure on the lung, so it cannot expand as it should when you take a breath. This can cause chest tightness and shortness of breath.

A collapsed lung can resolve on its own without major intervention, but it may take several weeks until you heal completely.

Pulmonary Embolism

A pulmonary embolism is a blockage of an artery in the lungs, most often caused by a blood clot.

Symptoms include pain under the breastbone, sharp stabbing pain in the chest, and a heavy tightness in the chest that may get worse with breathing.

This condition requires immediate medical attention. You may be given blood thinners to prevent more clots from forming.

Recap

You may already be well familiar with chest tightness from a chronic lung condition like asthma or COPD. Know, however, that other lung issues like pulmonary embolism can also cause chest tightness. They may be life-threatening, so seek immediate medical attention if you have symptoms.

Heart Issues

Chest pain and tightness may be caused by a number of heart-related conditions. Some of them can be serious. It's important to see your healthcare provider, who can help to determine if you have any of the following concerns.

Coronary Artery Disease

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is caused by a narrowing of large blood vessels, known as coronary arteries, that supply oxygen to the heart.

Narrowed arteries can cause shortness of breath and angina (chest pain). Angina symptoms are also described as chest tightness, heaviness, pressure, fullness, or squeezing.

If you have CAD, your healthcare provider may prescribe drugs that help to improve blood flow. Some will prevent blood clots, and lower your cholesterol or blood pressure.

Some people may need a procedure, such as balloon angioplasty or stents. These treatments can help reduce plaque buildup in the arteries and prevent future blockages. 

Mitral Valve Prolapse

Mitral valve prolapse (MVP) is the bulging of one or both mitral valves in the heart. When the valves don’t properly close, blood flows backward. This may cause a heart murmur (a "swooshing" sound when listening to the heart beat) and a number of symptoms, including chest tightness or pain.

With mitral valve prolapse, you may feel chest discomfort even when you are at rest.

Drugs that may be prescribed include beta blockers to lower blood pressure and blood thinners to prevent blood clots. Diuretics may be used to eliminate extra fluids and pressure on the heart.

Pericarditis

Pericarditis is an inflammation of the protective membrane that surrounds the heart. This thin tissue allows the heart to change in size with each heartbeat.

When inflamed, it can cause chest pain. The pain may be worse when lying down or taking deep breaths.

Medications such as Advil (ibuprofen) and aspirin can help reduce the pain and inflammation. Depending on the cause, your healthcare provider also may prescribe an antibiotic or antifungal drug.

Some people say the symptoms of pericarditis feel like pressure on the chest or a dull ache. Sitting up and leaning forward can often ease the pain.

Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) causes the heart muscle to become abnormally thick. This makes it harder for the heart to pump blood.  Some people with the condition may be short of breath and have chest tightness.

A healthcare provider can prescribe drugs to reduce how hard the heart muscles have to work and to slow your heart rate so the blood can pump more efficiently through the body.

Coronary Artery Tear

Spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) is an uncommon medical emergency caused by a sudden tearing of a blood vessel in the heart. Immediate medical attention is required.

The long-term prognosis is positive, but there is a risk of SCAD happening again. It’s important to be monitored closely by a cardiovascular specialist.

Recap

Heart conditions account for many of the possible reasons for chest tightness. Some of them, like coronary artery disease, are chronic and progressive illnesses. The symptoms for others, such as a coronary artery tear, come on suddenly. Don't wait to call 911 for sudden chest pain that comes with shortness of breath and other symptoms that point to a cardiac cause.

Gastrointestinal Conditions

Gastrointestinal (GI) issues can cause tightness in the chest and pain in the chest area. 

GERD

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition that causes the acid-containing contents of your stomach to leak back up into your esophagus, the tube that runs from your throat to your stomach.

In addition to heartburn, GERD can cause chest tightness. It ranges anywhere from crushing pain to tightness that feels like a weight on your chest.

There are many OTC medications, like antacids, that can help relieve GERD symptoms. In some cases, a healthcare provider may prescribe stronger medications if OTC products are not giving you relief. 

Hiatal Hernia

A hiatal hernia can put pressure on your stomach due to the upper part of your stomach rising up into your chest and pushing on the diaphragm, a muscle that separates the two. This pressure makes your stomach retain acid. Acid then can flow into your esophagus, causing chest discomfort, GERD, and heartburn. You may find it hard to breathe or swallow.

You can take antacids to reduce acid reflux, and you may be given drugs to block and/or reduce acid production to give your esophagus the chance to heal.

Peptic Ulcer

In peptic ulcer disease, painful ulcers or sores are found on the lining of the stomach or duodenum, the first part of the small intestine.

In most cases, a peptic ulcer causes abdominal pain, but it can sometimes cause chest pain and discomfort.

Peptic ulcers are often treated with antacids. Antibiotics can eliminate bacteria that can cause the condition, and drugs like Prilosec (omeprazole) that block the production of stomach acid can help.

Gallstones

Gallstones prevent the flow of bile from the liver to the small intestine. This can cause pain that lasts for hours or even days in severe cases.

Most cases begin with pain in the upper abdomen area. Chest tightness can occur if the pain spreads.

Medical attention is needed if you have gallstones. Treatment will vary depending on the cause. Studies suggest that regular exercise and a healthy diet are the most important ways to prevent gallstone disease.

Esophageal Disorders

The esophagus is a tube that carries food and liquid from your mouth to your stomach. Some esophageal disorders can cause chest tightness and pain, including:

  • Esophageal contraction disorder (muscle problems that affect swallowing)
  • Esophageal hypersensitivity (sensations that are similar to GERD)
  • Esophageal rupture (a tear in the esophagus)

Esophageal disorders may be treated with drugs that reduce stomach acid and relax the muscles in the throat. In some cases, antidepressants and even behavioral therapy can help manage the discomfort.

As a last resort, surgery may be recommended for some conditions.

Recap

Digestive disorders can be the cause of chest tightness. It's important to treat the acid reflux that causes GERD, as well as problems with the esophagus that may contribute to your symptoms. Your healthcare provider can prescribe drugs that can help with these issues.

Psychological Concerns

When you feel anxious, it can trigger a stress response in the body best known as fight-or-flight mode.

This can cause your heart rate and blood pressure to rise. Blood vessels constrict and chest muscles tighten. This can give you the feeling that someone is squeezing your chest, and cause tightness and shortness of breath.

Cortisol levels are also higher when you are under stress. This, too, can lead to chest pain and tightness.

How to Relieve Chest Tightness

There are a variety of ways to relieve chest tightness. The approaches you take will depend on what is causing it.

These are not substitutes for the treatment of the underlying conditions themselves, but they may help ease your discomfort.

Musculoskeletal Pain Treatment

For chest muscle strains that cause pain and tightness, the first line of treatment usually involves the RICE method

  • Rest: Take a break from activity. You can return to light activity after a few days, but take more time to rest if the tightness and pain return. 
  • Ice: Apply an ice pack to your injured or strained muscle for up to 20 minutes, three times a day, to reduce inflammation. 
  • Compression: Wrap a compression bandage around your torso. It can help reduce inflammation and may provide relief.
  • Elevation: Sit upright and maintain good posture. Use extra pillows to prop up your chest at night while you sleep.

Infection Treatment

For chest tightness from a respiratory infection:

  • Drink fluids: Fluids help thin out mucus that causes chest congestion. Warm fluids, in particular, can help clear mucus from the chest and nose. Try sipping tea, soup broth, or water throughout the day to help relieve congestion. 
  • Use a humidifier: Steam from a humidifier (or hot shower) can help clear up congestion. Try using it at night near your bed so you can sleep better. You may benefit from adding peppermint essential oil to the water in your humidifier to help clear mucus from your lungs. 
  • Take a decongestant: Decongestants may help break up mucus and clear the congestion in your chest and nose. Though they are not a cure for chest tightness or the virus that may be causing your infection, these drugs—available over the counter in liquid, tablet, or nasal spray form—can help reduce symptoms. 
  • Use a vapor rub: Vapor rubs are topical ointments that you rub on your chest and throat area. Most have a menthol-based ingredient thought to help clear airways, though there is no scientific evidence to prove this. It doesn’t clear up congestion, but it may help you breathe a little easier and relieve some chest tightness. 

Lung Condition Treatment

For pulmonary causes of chest tightness:

  • Take medications: Depending on the pulmonary cause of your chest tightness, you may be given medication by your healthcare provider to reduce the symptoms. It’s important to take your drugs as prescribed to keep symptoms from getting worse. 
  • Avoid triggers: If certain irritants or allergens trigger your chest tightness and shortness of breath, avoid them if possible. 
  • Rest: If your symptoms are made worse by activity, rest when your body needs it. If you need exercise, a light walk outside can help you move your body while not putting too much stress and strain on your lungs.

Gastrointestinal Issue Treatment  

To relieve chest tightness from GI problems:

  • Avoid certain foods and beverages: Try avoiding the things you know will trigger acid reflux in your body. This may mean avoiding tomato-based foods, soda, fried and high-fat foods, garlic, chocolate, and alcohol. Meals that are low in fat and high in protein may help. 
  • Eat smaller amounts: Rather than eating three large meals, try eating smaller amounts of healthy foods throughout the day. Smaller meals put less pressure on your stomach and prevent acid reflux. Avoid lying down for at least 20 minutes after eating to prevent heartburn. 
  • Take medications: If your healthcare provider has prescribed drugs to manage your GI, it is important to take them exactly as prescribed for as long as you are supposed to.
  • Quit smoking: If you use tobacco products, stop smoking. It can damage the lower esophageal sphincter, which works to keep stomach acid from backing up and causing reflux. Smoking cessation will also improve your lung health, reducing chest tightness and shortness of breath.

Anxiety Treatment

For chest tightness due to anxiety:

  • Breathing exercises: When you’re feeling anxious, you may take fast, shallow breaths, which can lead to more feelings of chest tightness. Try taking slow, deep breaths, breathing in for five counts and breathing out for five counts. Studies show that slow breathing can help you to relax.
  • Grounding techniques: Grounding is a coping strategy that brings your attention to the present moment and your surroundings. It can be as simple as sitting in a chair and focusing on how your body feels to slow your thoughts and breathing. This can prevent you from getting lost in anxious thoughts.
  • Exercise: Exercise has been shown to be effective at managing symptoms of anxiety, as it can help offset the fight-or-flight response. Try walking, running, or punching a bag as an outlet to soothe your body’s response to the anxiety.

Recap

Success in treating the symptoms of your chest tightness depends on the cause. For this reason, it's important to be sure you have an accurate diagnosis.

Summary

There are quite a few possible causes of chest tightness. Many of them are related to lung or heart conditions or injury, but a digestive disorder or infection can also be to blame. Even anxiety or emotional upset can cause chest tightness as your body reacts to the stress response.

There are steps you can take yourself to relieve symptoms, but many of these conditions will need to be diagnosed and treated by your healthcare provider.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about chest tightness is that it can be a sign of a life-threatening emergency, such as a heart attack or a pulmonary embolism. If the symptom arises along with others, such as difficulty breathing, nausea, or sweating, seek medical help right away.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes heavy lungs?

    The feeling of heavy lungs could be caused by a collapsed lung. This occurs when a hole in the lung occurs, allowing air to escape and fill the area between the lung and chest wall. A feeling of chest tightness and difficulty breathing are usually associated with collapsed lung.

  • What does COVID-19 chest pain feel like?

    Chest pain caused by COVID-19 can be described as persistent pain or pressure. Other warning signs associated with COVID-19 include difficulty breathing, fever, altered consciousness, and bluish lips or face.

  • Why does my chest hurt when I eat?

    Pain or tightness in the chest after eating could be due to a gastrointestinal problem such as GERD. This digestive disorder can cause stomach acid to travel into the esophagus, causing throat inflammation and chest pain.

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