Back Pain: Could it Be Your Heart?

An older Asian man sits up in bed and winces as he has his left hand on the back of his neck.
  • Back and chest pain are two of the most common types of pain experienced by Americans, affecting millions of adults.
  • It’s common for these two pains to occur together, and they usually don’t indicate serious health conditions. However, understanding your symptoms is key to getting the right treatment and knowing when to seek medical attention.
  • Nonthreatening causes of chest pain include muscle strain, heartburn, and panic attacks. Severe cases may indicate an oncoming heart attack, embolism, or cancer.
  • There are several ways to treat back and chest pain, including effective at-home remedies and physical therapy. You may also need professional medical care if you experience severe symptoms.

Back and chest pain are two of the most common types of pain that Americans experience.

In fact, almost 65 million adults in the U.S. deal with bouts of back pain each year. Similarly, chest pain affects nearly 70 million Americans.

Although these conditions don’t necessarily indicate serious medical issues, experiencing them together may be cause for concern.

In this article, we’ll cover the causes of back and chest pain, risk factors, and treatment options to help manage symptoms.

What is Back and Chest Pain?

Back pain is defined as a physical sense of discomfort that can occur anywhere on the spine or back. This pain can range from mild to severe.

Chest pain is any sort of discomfort in the chest cavity. This can include:

  • A dull ache
  • A rushing or burning feeling
  • Sharp stabbing pains

Chest pain may also radiate into the back, neck, or shoulders.

Can Back Pain Cause Chest Pain?

It can be alarming to experience discomfort in the back alongside unexplained chest pain. However, this is a rather common experience.

Some conditions can cause pain to spread when it starts to aggravate more areas in the body. Not all of these conditions are cause for concern, and some even resolve on their own.

If you’re concerned about pain in your back or chest, it’s always best to make an appointment to speak with your healthcare provider.

Are There Different Types of Chest and Back Pain?

Chest and back pain can manifest in a number of different ways. Let’s take a closer look at what these are.

Dull, aching pain

This type of pain may be felt in both the front and back sides of the chest. This pain may also present with a pulsing sensation.

Dull and aching pains can become more noticeable and uncomfortable when they don’t go away.

These pains can also linger throughout the day, regardless of your posture or movements.

Sharp, burning pain

A sharp, burning sensation may be felt along the length of the upper back and across the ribs and chest. This often occurs suddenly and can feel like a stabbing pain.

Sharp pains may also worsen with certain body positions or movements — like poor posture or sitting at an abnormal angle.

Pain while breathing

Another type of chest and back pain is when discomfort is experienced while breathing. As you breathe in, your lungs expand. This can aggravate existing pain.

It can feel like a kind of painful muscle tightness around the chest, ribs, and upper back.

A man in a blue polo shirt and a backpack on his left shoulder is standing in front of a tree with his head down and his eyes closed. His right hand is pushed up against the tree, almost as if the man is steadying himself.

Progressive and spreading pain

You may also experience back or chest pain separately before the discomfort spreads to another part of your body.

This kind of pain can also spread into the neck, shoulders, and arms. It often feels like sore or tight muscles.

Tingling and numbness

Although this isn’t a type of pain, many people also experience tingling and numbness alongside their discomfort. This is also known as the pins and needles sensation.

Tingling and numbness can also make back and chest pain feel even more uncomfortable or unsettling.

This sensation often spreads to the shoulders, arms, and hands.

Key Point: What Causes the “Pins and Needles” Sensation?

Paresthesia — the medical term for the “pins and needles” sensation refers to a burning or prickling sensation usually felt in the hands, arms, legs, or feet.

It occurs when consistent pressure is placed on a nerve and usually happens without warning.

Most people have experienced temporary paresthesia at some point, usually when they’ve been sitting with their legs crossed for too long.

When this happens, it can often feel as if the limbs “fell asleep”.

What Does It Mean if You Experience Back and Chest Pain at the Same Time?

There are many reasons for experiencing back and chest pain at the same time. Although this isn’t always cause for concern, it can sometimes signal a serious medical issue.

It’s best to keep an eye on your symptoms and speak to your healthcare provider if you’re worried about anything.

Common causes of back and chest pain

Common causes of back and chest pain are usually not life-threatening. These conditions also tend to go away on their own or can be treated at home.

Muscle injury or bruised ribs

Chest and back pain often result from a muscle injury or overuse, like when you train too hard at the gym.

Muscles can also become strained due to mishaps like falls or accidents. This can also bruise your ribs and contribute to chest pain.

This type of pain will generally become worse when moving the affected area.


Heartburn is caused by stomach acid that backs up into your esophagus and manifests as a burning sensation in the chest.

More severe cases of heartburn can also cause pain in the back. This pain can worsen when lying down or leaning forward.

Although it’s not a fatal condition, heartburn that occurs frequently may impact your daily lifestyle.

Luckily this condition can be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) medications and will generally go away on its own.


Your pancreas is an essential organ that helps digest food and regulate the body’s insulin (blood sugar) levels.

When this organ becomes inflamed due to digestive enzymes attacking it, it’s called pancreatitis. It can also occur due to infection, injury, or cancer.

Pancreatitis pains usually occur in the abdomen, but can spread toward the back and even cause unusual chest wall pain. It might also worsen if you lie down or lean forward.


This condition refers to inflammation of the membranes that cover the lungs due to a viral infection. Pleurisy may cause a sharp pain in the chest that becomes worse when you:

  • Breathe deeply
  • Cough or sneeze
  • Move around

It can also cause pain in the shoulders as well as shortness of breath.

Pleurisy isn’t a fatal condition and can usually heal without treatment.

However, if you’re experiencing persistent symptoms, you should seek medical attention.


Costochondritis — also known as chest wall pain syndrome — occurs when the cartilage that connects a rib to the breastbone becomes inflamed. Common symptoms of costochondritis are:

  • Sharp pain in the chest area
  • Discomfort in the ribs
  • Pain that becomes worse with a deep breath or when coughing

Costochondritis pain may also spread to the back and cause discomfort in the shoulders.

This condition usually resolves on its own or can be treated with OTC medications.


Shingles is an adult illness that’s triggered by the chickenpox virus, varicella-zoster. It causes a painful rash around the chest, abdomen, or back.

This condition usually causes general feelings of discomfort, tingling, and burning sensations in the area where the rash develops.

Pain can be mild or severe, depending on each individual experience.

Panic attacks

Severe stress and anxiety disorders often cause panic attacks. This can manifest as an overwhelming sense of fear that makes it difficult to function.

A panic attack has a variety of symptoms like:

  • Rapid breathing and heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness

People who experience panic attacks may also have sharp chest pain that can spread to the back, neck, and shoulders.

This can lead to muscle stiffness that can last for days after the initial panic attack, which also contributes to back pain.

Although a panic attack can occur suddenly and without warning, it usually peaks within 10 minutes before resolving on its own.

Your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medications to help you manage other symptoms.

Severe Causes of Back and Chest Pain

More severe cases of back and chest pain should be diagnosed and treated by a licensed medical professional.

Some of these conditions can be life-threatening if you don’t get the required treatment.

Gallbladder problems

The gallbladder is a small organ that stores bile — a fluid that digests food in the stomach.

Sometimes this fluid hardens and causes gallstones. This can be an extremely uncomfortable condition that can cause pain below your breastbone and in the upper back.

Pain due to gallbladder issues can last for several hours. You may also experience nausea and vomiting.

It’s important that you seek immediate medical attention if you suspect that something is wrong with your gallbladder.

Heart attack

Heart attacks occur when blood flow to the heart muscle is cut off or severely reduced. Blood flow can be cut off due to a build-up of fat, cholesterol, or a blood clot.

When a person experiences a heart attack, the heart muscle is injured and healthy tissue can die.

Sudden chest pain in the left side of the body may indicate a heart attack. Other symptoms may include:

  • Tightness in the chest
  • Pain in the back, neck, or jaw
  • Pain in the arms and shoulders
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness
  • Cold sweats

Heart attack pain can also spread across the body as the condition worsens.

This condition can be fatal, and anyone experiencing these symptoms must seek emergency medical attention.

Key Point: How to Administer Aspirin to Someone Experiencing a Heart Attack

Aspirin can help quickly dissolve the blockage that is causing the heart attack. Not only can this reduce the severity of the heart attack, but it might also save someone’s life.

A study on the best way to administer aspirin during a heart attack showed that chewing a single 325mg tablet works the fastest. It took only five minutes to reduce a blockage.

Since a blood clot can increase in size as time passes, the best way to prevent this is to dissolve it as quickly as possible.

Pulmonary embolism

A pulmonary embolism happens when a blood clot blocks an artery in one of the lungs.

Experiencing chest pain is a common symptom of this condition. However, pain may spread to the shoulders, back, and neck as well.

This pain can worsen when taking a deep breath. You may also experience shortness of breath and a rapid heart rate.

A pulmonary embolism is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment.

Breast or lung cancer

These types of cancer often cause chest and back pain at the same time.

Around 25% of people diagnosed with these cancers report bouts of back pain at some point.

This could be caused by tumors aggravating nerves or muscles around the spine and shoulders.

Breast cancer can also metastasize and spread to other parts of the body, causing flare-ups of pain to occur.

Although cancer can be life-threatening, there are several effective treatment options available that can help you manage the symptoms of this disease.

Speak to your healthcare provider to discuss the best course of action for your situation as soon as possible.

Diagnosing Chest and Back Pain

It can be overwhelming to experience chest pain and discomfort in your back at the same time.

Since it can signal serious medical conditions, visiting your doctor for a professional diagnosis should be your first course of action.

They can help you pinpoint exactly what is causing your chest and back pain, as well as recommend the best treatment options.

Doctors typically perform a physical examination and might also send you for X-rays, CT scans, or MRI studies.

This is done to highlight irregularities in the chest or diagnose pleural disorders.

A woman's eyes are closed as she is moved into an MRI scan.

Treatment Options for Back and Chest Pain

There are many ways to treat and prevent chest and back pain. Let’s take a closer look at the options.

At-home remedies

At-home remedies often include OTC or prescription medications that can help you manage your symptoms. These include:

  • Anti-inflammatory medication to reduce pain
  • Aspirin and clot-reducing drugs
  • Treatments to help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of a heart attack, such as beta-blockers
  • Blood thinners that reduce the risk of blood clots
  • Antibiotics to treat viral infections
  • Heartburn relief treatments

You will need to manage and take note of your symptoms for a couple of days or weeks. If you notice that they aren’t getting better, reach out to your doctor.

Physical therapy

Muscle tightness or injury are common causes of chest and back pain. Physical therapy incorporates stretches and exercises to help you:

  • Manage pain
  • Regain muscle strength
  • Improve flexibility
  • Increase your range of motion

Physical therapists can also help you recover after a heart attack.

Key Point: How Can Physical Therapy Help Me Recover After a Heart Attack?

Cardiac rehabilitation is an important part of your recovery following a heart attack.

The physical exercises involved in recovery programs may help to:

  • Strengthen your heart muscles and your whole body
  • Reduce stress and harmful lifestyle habits that can contribute to heart attacks
  • Improve your mood and mental well-being.

Research has also shown that cardiac rehabilitation can decrease the risk of future heart attacks by 30%.

Emergency medical treatment

For more severe cases of chest and back pain, you’ll likely need to be admitted to the hospital or receive professional medical care.

This can include:

  • Chemotherapy or radiation
  • Nonsurgical procedures to treat heart attack symptoms or pleurisy
  • Surgical procedures like a heart bypass, tumor or gallstone removal, or restorative muscle surgery

Are You Worried About Back and Chest Pain?

Back and chest pain is a common condition experienced by many Americans. Although it’s not usually cause for concern, this kind of pain may indicate a serious medical condition.

If you’re experiencing some of the symptoms we’ve covered in this article or are worried about your back pain, don’t hesitate to speak to a board-certified doctor or nurse practitioner. Head over to LifeMD to make a video appointment.

Dr. Asunta Moduthagam

Dr. Moduthagam has been a family medicine physician since 2011. She loves working with patients to help them reach an optimal state of well-being. She’s dedicated to thoughtful, compassionate care and is committed to being her patients’ best advocate.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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