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Tight Chest and Shortness of Breath

Leena Palande Mar 12, 2019
Chest congestion and shortness of breath are symptoms of an impending heart attack, a scaring condition that requires prompt medication. But so many other diseases and disorders can also cause chest pain and breathing difficulty. Read on, to know about the symptoms and causes of tight chest and how the condition is treated.
Chest pain and breathing difficulty (known as dyspnea) do not always indicate an impending heart attack. A person experiencing these symptoms may not be suffering from a cardiac problem. Although the symptoms are mainly related to heart and lung problems, severe pain from neck, abdomen and back can spread to the chest and can exhibit these symptoms.
Restricted blood supply or accumulation of fluid/blood usually leads to tightness, heavy pressure and pain in the chest. Labored respiration is one of the major tight chest symptoms.

Causes of Chest Congestion and Breathing Difficulty

  • These symptoms indicate a life-threatening condition, heart attack. Restricted supply of blood and oxygen to the heart is the main cause of chest pain, general discomfort, dizziness, left arm pain, even shoulder or jaw pain.
  • Aortic dissection (a tear in the wall of the aorta) can cause severe chest pain, back pain and labored breathing.
  • Blocked arteries can lead to recurring pain called angina.
  • Pericarditis (inflammation of tissues around heart) can cause pain and choking.
  • Pleurisy (inflamed lung lining) can cause severe pain in thorax region, difficulty in breathing, wheezing, etc.
  • Asthma (inflammation of bronchi) can cause tightness in chest followed by severe coughing and wheezing.
  • Pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in lung) can lead to respiratory problems and pain.
  • Trauma, severe injuries, overexertion, intensive exercise, physical strain can result in tight chest and shortness of breath.
  • Over exposure to pollen, dust, bee-stings, etc. can cause severe allergic reaction which may result in the aforementioned symptoms.
  • Smokers are likely to suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or emphysema (damaged lung tissues). They may experience such symptoms.
  • Viral/bacterial infection in lungs leads to inflammation of the lungs and often results in pneumonia.
  • Anxiety, panic attacks can lead to rapid breathing. Excessive worry can make you feel nervous. Difficulty in breathing, shaking, excessive sweating, pain in the abdomen or chest can be experienced in such cases.
  • Digestive system problems like heartburn, acidity, gallbladder dysfunction, stomach ulcers, obstruction in the path of the urine/stools can be a cause of tight chest after eating. Even overeating, excessive gas, indigestion can lead to such problem.
  • Several other health complications like pneumothorax (lung collapse), bronchitis, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, sleep apnea, etc., can lead to discomfort and breathlessness.
Not only heart or lung problems but problems in esophagus, chest muscles, injuries to ribs, tendons or nerves, a pinched nerve, etc., can also cause pain and discomfort. Sedentary lifestyle can lead to a blood clot in your leg which can move upwards and can cause severe chest pain.


  • Nausea, pale/bluish skin, dizziness, sweating, a racing heart and dyspnea.
  • Pain in the thorax region, radiating to your jaw, left arm or between your shoulder blades.
  • Excessive coughing, sweating, wheezing, headache, trembling, fevers and chills, fainting.
  • Sudden crushing, squeezing, tightening or tremendous pressure in your chest.
  • Sudden sharp chest pain with difficulty in breathing, especially after a surgery.
  • Acute, severe pain in chest after a long vacation or after lack of movement for several days (after bed rest).
  • Intensity of angina pain may suddenly increase, it may start even with lighter activity or it may last longer than usual. Angina pain may occur even when you are at rest.


It is difficult for a common man to judge whether the underlying cause of the aforementioned symptoms is acidity or something serious like heart attack. A delay in treatment (if the symptoms indicate an impending heart attack) can lead to serious health consequences. Neglecting the symptoms may even prove to be fatal.
The mentioned symptoms, when noticed, should be considered as an emergency to rush to the hospital. If you have a problem in swallowing, then too, you should consult your doctor immediately.
After thorough physical examination, the doctor might ask you to undergo certain tests. The doctor will monitor your temperature, pulse, rate of breathing, blood pressure, etc. He would first focus on the chest wall, lungs and heart. After ruling out the possibility of heart and lung problems, he would check for other disorders.
He would check the symptoms carefully. For example, he might ask,
  • Is the chest pain getting worse?
  • How long does the pain last?
  • Do you experience more pain while breathing deeply, coughing, eating or bending?
  • What are the other symptoms present?
  • Does the pain come on suddenly? Does it occur at the same time each day?
  • Is the pain worse while exercising? Do you feel better when you rest? Is it completely relieved or just less pain when you rest?
  • Do you feel better after taking nitroglycerin medication? Is the pain lowered after drinking milk or taking antacids? Is it reduced after belching?
Antibiotics, sufficient rest and proper treatment may help lower the symptoms and help get rid of the bacterial infection in lungs. Antacids can lower heartburn due to acidity. If the symptoms indicate heart problem, the patient may have to undergo angiography and if required, angioplasty or heart bypass surgery.

Precautionary Measures

To avoid digestive/circulatory system problems, you should try to maintain your weight within the normal range for your height. You should control high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes with the help of balanced diet, exercises and prescribed medications.
Those with asthma should stay away from very cold air, excessive exercise, exposure to allergens and infections. Smoking and excessive alcohol affect the lungs and heart. So, quit smoking and stop alcohol abuse. A healthy diet low in saturated and hydrogenated fats keeps away diseases. 
A cholesterol-free diet that is high in starches (complex carbohydrates) and fiber (fruits and vegetables) helps maintain the health of the heart. The doctor may prescribe antianxiety medication but you should learn some stress-relieving techniques like yoga and meditation; because they help manage the stress. 
Regular exercise and certain breathing exercises like pranayama help improve the health of your heart and lungs. They ensure maximum supply of blood and oxygen to the heart.
You should consult your doctor and find out the exact cause of chest pain and breathing difficulty. This would help design proper treatment. CT scan, chest X-ray, ECG, etc. help detect the underlying cause.
Disclaimer: This is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.