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Health Conditions That Mimic Heart Diseases

Out of 7 million patients admitted to emergency rooms with chest pain yearly, an estimated 50% are later diagnosed with non-cardiac causes of chest pain. What constitutes such a sizeable share of cases that are convincing enough to make people go to an ER? We’ve tried to answer this question and looked into conditions that manifest themselves in ways similar to those of heart diseases.

Heart conditions are numerous and require different treatment, but there is a lot of similarity in terms of symptoms. Such life-threatening conditions as heart attack and coronary artery disease, as well as atrial fibrillation and arrhythmia all manifest themselves in somewhat similar ways. They commonly cause a patient to experience the following:

  • chest discomfort, which may mean a pressing, squeezing, or burning sensation, or sharp or dull pain
  • discomfort in other upper body parts, like jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, hands and back
  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness or weakness
  • increased heart beat or palpitation

Chest wall (musculoskeletal) pain is an alarming symptom since it usually raises the fear of heart disease. In fact, 25% of all patients admitted to hospitals are diagnosed with chest wall pain on further examination.

Musculoskeletal pain can happen for a number of reasons. Precordial catch, for instance, that sudden localized stabbing pain in the chest that gets worse when you try to inhale and goes away as suddenly as it sets on, is benign. There is also lower rib pain syndrome and costosternal syndrome that are related to rib dislocation or straining of the muscles supporting the ribs. These conditions cause chest pain, but don’t normally require surgical treatment. Chest wall pain can also be an immediate or delayed sign of chest trauma.

Acid reflux is a gastrointestinal disorder that is characterized by backing up of stomach acid or juice into the esophagus. It is most commonly accompanied by heartburn, which is a burning pain in the chest, a sour taste in the mouth, and regurgitation. This condition can be confused with a heart attack because the pain is felt somewhere in the chest and can sometimes radiate into the neck, back, or jaw.

There is a way to know the difference, however. First of all, the pain is usually localized to the area behind the breastbone, whereas cardiac pain is deeper and, more often than not, it radiates into other parts of the body. Secondly, the type of pain will most likely be different, sharp and burning in case of acid reflux, and crushing, tight and heavy when it’s cardiac. Last but not least, the pain caused by acid reflux normally feels sharper when you breathe more deeply or cough. Cardiac pain, especially heart-attack related, doesn’t ease or aggravate if you change you way of breathing.

Photo by Jesper Aggergaard on Unsplash

Cervical radiculopathy, a.k.a. a pinched nerve is caused by excess pressure put on the nerve by its surroundings, like bones, cartilage, muscles or tendons.

This usually occurs due to the deterioration of vertebrae that accompanies ageing or improper posture. When cartilage between vertebrae wears out, bones start rubbing against each other, causing more bone tissue to grow into bone spurs that can pinch nerves.

As a result of this, the nerve’s functioning is disrupted, which is usually felt as numbness, pain, or weakness. The pain can radiate into shoulder, arm or hand, thus, creating an impression of cardiac pain, akin to what one might feel when having a heart attack.

Pulmonary embolism is a blockage in pulmonary arteries (the ones that supply blood flow to the lungs) caused by a clot formed somewhere else in the body and brought typically from the legs up to the lungs.

The most common symptoms of pulmonary embolism are shortness of breath and chest pain, which explains why it can be confused with heart diseases. Since embolism blocks blood supply, it can be life-threatening, but if tended to immediately, its effects can be minimized.

Broken heart syndrome is a condition that mimics a heart attack strikingly well. Not only does a patient experience all the typical symptoms of a heart attack like chest pain, shortness of breath and fast heartbeat, but the condition also causes short-term heart failure. This syndrome has been proven to be caused solely by emotions and is called so due to its occurrence chiefly in the wake of a great emotional stress.

Photo by Gabriel Matula on Unsplash

Panic attack is another emotion-induced condition that resembles a heart attack. Its symptoms are frighteningly similar to those of a heart attack, including shortness of breath, a rapid heart rate, chest pain and lightheadedness. Patients going through a panic attack often sweat, feel terrified and as if they were losing control. However, unlike myocardial infarction, a panic attack lasts up to 10 minutes and passes without intervention usually having no consequences.

As with anything health-related it is always wise to call an ambulance as soon as you register any symptoms that can be associated with cardiovascular diseases. After all, you may not be among those having non-cardiac chest pain, and we hardly need to mention that when it comes to heart conditions, every minute counts.

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