Chest pain is the second-biggest cause of emergency room visits, with 8 million such visits in the United States per year. The pain you feel might be directly near the center of your body or, for some people, it occurs right under their breasts.
Whether it’s a sharp, stabbing, burning, or dull reoccurring pain, you might be wondering if that discomfort under your breasts is something serious. Pain under your breasts can be as simple as having heartburn, which might not be dangerous to your health. However, some causes can be concerning — especially when they involve your heart, symptoms go unnoticed, or they affect daily life, Dr. Joe Whittington, a board-certified emergency physician, told HuffPost.
“If the chest pain significantly affects your daily activities, persists for an extended period, or does not respond to conservative measures, it is advisable to seek medical advice for further evaluation and appropriate management,” Whittington said.
Since symptoms of more severe conditions tend to be overlooked or unrecognized in women, it’s important to be armed with information. HuffPost asked experts to explain causes behind pain under the breasts, as well as symptoms and when to see a doctor.
Precordial Catch Syndrome
Described as a sharp, needlelike pain near the heart, precordial catch syndrome involves chest pain that typically occurs when taking a breath, and usually subsides when you inhale more deeply. You might feel this along the left side of the sternum, or just beneath the left breast. Although it might feel similar to serious conditions like heart disease, the syndrome is common and harmless, Whittington said.
“Precordial catch syndrome is not well understood, but it is believed to be related to irritation or inflammation of the nerves in the chest wall,” he said. “The pain may result from the pinching or trapping of nerves, especially the intercostal nerves that run between the ribs. The condition may also be associated with muscle spasms or tension in the chest muscles.”
Unlike a heart attack, the pain caused by the syndrome won’t radiate to other parts of the body and doesn’t involve any other symptoms.
Thankfully, the chest pain typically goes away on its own after 30 seconds to three minutes, and it does not need specific treatment. However, it’s important to notify your doctor if new symptoms arise.
Sometimes chest pain can be due to mastitis, an inflammation of the breast. The most common reason for this is a bacterial infection resulting from breastfeeding. It can occur when a clogged milk duct doesn’t let milk fully drain from the breast, leading to the infection.
This type of breast inflammation might cause a hard, swollen and red breast area, with a fever, chills, and a flu-like feeling.
“Sometimes the cause is inflammation and swelling of different parts of the breast/chest tissue that may not properly allow breast milk to be removed from the breast/chest by the baby or by a breast pump,” Stephanie Yabut, an associate director of nursing and lactation consultant programs at The Mount Sinai Hospital, told HuffPost. “Sometimes, mastitis may be the result of an infection that can cause inflammation and swelling.”
As a result, you might feel pain in the chest area. Symptoms might last from two to five days, with pain usually found in one breast.
Typically, antibiotics are required to treat mastitis over the course of 10 days. Abscesses, or collections of pus, may form and might need to be drained. Additionally, a biopsy may be needed to ensure that symptoms aren’t the result of other forms of infection.
Costochondritis, often called chest wall pain, is a result of inflammation of the cartilage that connects the ribs to the breastbone, which is why you might feel pain under your breasts. Pain and discomfort typically becomes worse as you move or breathe, and when you press against your ribs or breastbone.
The inflammation might be caused by sudden chest injury, viral infections, strain from coughing, exercise or arthritis.
“Costochondritis is typically a harmless condition,” Whittington said. “In most cases, it is a self-limiting condition that resolves on its own with time. It is usually not a cause for concern, and the pain can be managed with conservative measures such as rest, applying heat or cold packs, and over-the-counter pain medications.”
The condition tends to cause long-lasting pain that can improve after several weeks but may also persist for months.
The most common symptoms of gastritis ― aka inflammation of the stomach ― are abdominal pain, indigestion, heartburn and upset stomach. It also can cause a burning sensation in the middle of the chest, near the breasts.
Gastritis can result from many things, including infection, autoimmune disorders, anemia and various irritations. High-fat foods, alcohol, cigarettes, acidic drinks like coffee, and long-term use of ibuprofen can trigger inflammation of the stomach lining.
Approximately half of adults will report reflux symptoms when they have gastritis. One of these is heartburn, which occurs when stomach acid rises to the esophagus. The causes of heartburn include medications, alcohol, caffeine, stress, and eating large meals or spicy food.
Acute gastritis may last for a short time, or a couple of weeks. However, chronic gastritis may linger for months.
A heart attack occurs when the heart muscle does not get enough blood. As a result, a common symptom is chest pain that occurs in the center or on the left side of the chest and lasts for a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. This can feel like a squeezing sensation, fullness, and uncomfortable pressure on the chest or near your breast. You might also feel pain in your arms, shoulders, jaw, neck or back.
Compared with men, women experiencing heart attacks have symptoms that are less often associated with this medical emergency, such as chest discomfort, nausea, and back or jaw pain. Additionally, symptoms like chest pain can be mistaken for less serious conditions, including heartburn.
It’s important to seek immediate care if you experience these symptoms, especially if they last for 15 to 20 minutes.
Anxiety and panic disorder can cause chest pain near the breast, and they are associated with elevated rates of high blood pressure. Additionally, hyperventilation (or rapid breathing) can also cause musculoskeletal chest pain due to strain or spasm of the chest wall muscles.
As a result, rib cage tightness may feel like pressure around the ribs, which are located around your chest muscles. Symptoms of panic disorder include chest pain and pressure, a choking sensation, palpitations, dizziness and chills.
“Experiencing a sense of intense fear, dread, perceived loss of control, or feelings of imminent or anticipatory doom serve as internal sirens that activate internal systems,” Rachel Ginsberg, a psychologist at the NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, told HuffPost.
Chest pain caused by anxiety is typically not harmful, Ginsberg said. However, panic disorder can cause more damage to your health if left untreated.
“Due to higher rates of cardiovascular conditions associated with untreated panic disorder — as well as the emotional burden, time and resources spent seeking medical treatment due to unrelenting fear of a heart attack or death — this can erode quality of life,” Ginsberg said.
Although chest pain and discomfort are common among people with anxiety, other symptoms should not be ignored. It’s critical to receive immediate care if you experience sudden chest pain that spreads to your arms, jaw, or back and lasts longer than 15 minutes, as well as shortness of breath and chest tightness or heaviness. Additionally, if new symptoms arise and become severe or persistent, it’s important to rule out any serious health conditions.
“If you are uncertain about the cause of your chest pain or if it is your first experience with chest pain, it is advisable to consult a health care professional for an accurate diagnosis,” Whittington said.