Heart to heart

Dr Matt Piccaver who works at Grove Surgery in Thetford

Dr Matt Piccaver who works at Grove Surgery in Thetford - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2012

Our health columnist, GP Dr Matt Piccaver discusses what chest pains could mean.

There are many symptoms that cause my brow to furrow. For whatever reason, the most troubling symptoms are often left until the end. We all do it, and to this day I have no idea why. The “by the way Doc” fills me with fear. It is usually something nasty, or has the potential to be.

One of the things most worrying is chest pain. There’s a myriad of causes, some minor, others life threatening. From muscle aches and pains, to heart disease or blood clots on the lungs, the diagnoses are varied. It is hard to interpret what is going on with our body. Most illnesses make us feel “a bit fluey” or “under the weather”. We call this malaise, the non-specific feeling of being ill. People may describe a feeling of “indigestion”, tightness or pressure. I’ve never really been sure what indigestion is meant to feel like. Many people will mean something else when they say it.

Of all the causes of chest pain, one of the most worrying is caused by the heart. Heart disease affects seven million people in the UK alone, and is responsible for 160,000 deaths per year. For some, the first time we know we might have heart disease is when it kills us. Other symptoms of heart disease include a tight band, or pressure like pain across the chest. It may be felt up in the jaw, the upper shoulders or down into the arms. It is much more common in men, smokers, or those with diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. It is also much more likely the older we get.

If you have chest pain, especially if it is severe, like a pressure and you feel sick or clammy, this could be a heart attack and you need to dial 999. A band of pain across the chest that comes on when active but wears off rapidly when stopping could be angina. If it doesn’t go away or is severe, 999 is the number to call.

If you’re diagnosed with heart disease, namely coronary artery disease, you’ll undergo a series of tests. This could be scans of the heart, or a study where dye is injected into the blood vessels of the heart (a coronary angiogram). You’ll be started on a whole raft of medications to help and you may even be offered surgery to bypass the narrow coronary arteries (a bypass).

Cardiac disease is common, but with timely diagnosis treatable in a variety of different ways. Prevention is always better than cure. Eat a balanced diet, avoid smoking, and get plenty of exercise. If the worst does happen, remember we’re here to help.