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What would you do if you felt sudden or gradual chest pain? What would you say to a loved one who described a squeezing sensation or feeling of fullness in the chest? While some describe their symptoms differently, how do you know if it’s a muscle spasm, indigestion, or even a heart attack? The short answer is … you don’t.

What to do if you have chest pain.

Chest pain can be as serious as a heart attack or as minor as heartburn. But only a medical professional can determine and properly treat your pain. At UPMC Pinnacle, we take chest pain seriously. Our doctors, nurses, and technicians are specially trained to evaluate and treat patients experiencing chest pain.

“Our Chest Pain Center and Emergency Rooms (ERs) offer advanced and immediate protocols for properly assessing, diagnosing and relieving various types of chest pain,” said Christine Dang, MD, an Emergency Medicine physician with UPMC Pinnacle Lancaster and Lititz. She added that you should never take matters into your own hands.

“A recent and disturbing trend is an increase of patients ing to Urgent Care locations with chest pain symptoms. While we encourage the community to use our walk-in centers, it’s important to know that chest pain warrants immediate emergency attention.”

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Signs and symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Unexplained sweatiness
  • Obvious and fast heartbeats
  • Anxiety or a feeling of impending doom
  • Pain or tingling down the left side of the arm, along the jaw or neck
  • Shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, or breaking out into a cold sweat

Heavy lifting, anxiety, indigestion, angina, and other stress can cause chest pain.  That’s why it’s important to see a medical professional.

Do not drive yourself to the emergency room.


Individuals should never dismiss chest pain or attempt to drive themselves to an ER. Barry Albertson, director of operations, Community Life Team, UPMC Pinnacle, explained why.

“Time is tissue when it comes to the possibility of a heart attack. The best thing to do is call 9-1-1. The longer it takes to get to an ER, the more damage to the tissue of your heart,” he said.

When you drive yourself while ill, you could be underestimating your situation. Nobody wishes to inconvenience a friend or relative. However, you not only risk your own health, but you can jeopardize others by getting into a car accident on the way to the medical facility if the pain intensifies. Putting yourself and others at risk unnecessarily is dangerous.

“Our advice as emergency service professionals is don’t drive yourself anywhere with chest pain or even ask someone else. Call 9-1-1. Our medical training prepares us to act accordingly. If you become distressed, you’re increasing the risk of not receiving treatment and possibly injuring others,” Albertson said.

The Emergency Medical System (EMS) can identify your location even if the call is disconnected, but that isn’t the case in a moving car or along the road. You may find yourself in sudden, severe pain, panicked, and unable of making or completing that call.  In addition, EMTs can perform an on-site EKG, and then notify the receiving ER to mobilize the cath lab prior to your arrival.  In the face of a possible heart attack or stroke, minutes count.

Getting Care As Soon As Possible Is a Matter of Life and Death.

The American Heart Association encourages the use of a new quality measure called “first medical contact to balloon.” That is the amount of time it takes to successfully re-open a blocked artery. (This kind of heart attack is called a STEMI. That’s short for ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction.)

The al is to complete the procedure within 90 minutes of EMS arriving at the patient’s side. Some argue that the clock should start with the 9-1-1 call.

UPMC Pinnacle patients have a “door-to-balloon” time of approximately 63 minutes on average. That’s significantly less than the 90-minute timeframe specified by the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association.

Doctors treat STEMI with “clot-busting” drugs or with intervention in a cardiac catheterization lab. This is also known as angioplasty or stenting. There is a direct relationship between the amount of time a heart artery is blocked, the severity of the heart attack, and the odds of survival.

When someone comes in for chest pain, an electrocardiogram (or EKG) is done as soon as possible. This helps the doctor see if the problem involves the heart. The EKG will help determine if a patient needs to be admitted or discharged with appropriate follow-up care.

Choosing the Right Care.

Other than chest pain or stroke concern, other reasons to go to the ER include:

  • Major head or neck injury
  • Severe burns
  • Seizures
  • Trouble breathing
  • Passing out, fainting
  • Major broken bones
  • Severe allergic reaction
  • Heavy uncontrolled bleeding
  • Poisoning or overdose on drugs or alcohol
  • Suicidal thoughts

When to see your primary care physician:

  • Colds, flu, earaches, sore throat
  • Minor cuts and burns
  • Lice
  • Pink eye
  • Sinus infections
  • Earaches
  • Pregnancy or STD tests
  • Physicals, vaccinations, and screenings
  • Headaches, migraines, fever, or rashes
  • Chronic illness management
  • Acute care concerns or minor injuries

When to visit an urgent care center:

  • Sprains, strains, and cuts
  • Minor infections, sore throats, or rashes
  • Minor broken bones (finger, toes)
  • Diagnostic services, including x-rays and laboratory tests

Everyone wants relief when facing an acute illness, injury or health annoyance. Yet some of us downplay and ignore signs and symptoms that should be addressed. Getting the right care in the right place can make the difference between a successful and even a fatal outcome.

If you’re seriously injured or in pain, don’t risk driving yourself to the ER. And don’t ignore sudden or painful symptoms that interfere with your life. When in doubt and the situation involves your heart or chest, call 9-1-1 or have someone drive you to an ER right away.

Choosing the right care for your needs! Can an aspirin a day keep the cardiologist away?

For more information on choosing the right care facility for your symptoms, please visit us online. For a list of hospital locations near you, please visit our locations page.

About UPMC Harrisburg

UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.

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