I see this scenario quite frequently in cardiology clinic. Generally speaking, about a quarter of my new patient visits complain of the following set of symptoms at their appointment: chest pain lasting for several months, maybe 2-4 times a week, for less than 10-20 seconds at a time, at a moderate intensity, sometimes with activity, but more often not. And the child just recently told his or her parents about it.
Understandably, the parents are worried.
But the good news is that while it’s pretty common for children to say that their chest hurts or even that their “heart hurts,” it’s rarely caused by heart disease.
Most kids will complain of chest pain sometime between age 7 and their teenage years, but thankfully, it will be caused by an underlying heart condition in less than 1% of them. More frequently it is related to a viral illness, stress, or most commonly, musculoskeletal pain.
It is my hope that this information will give parents a little peace of mind: the pain manifesting in your child’s chest is rarely caused by heart disease. But I also understand how concerning it can be for parents, and sometimes further investigation may be necessary to narrow down the cause. So where should parents start?
I suggest answering the following questions:
- Has my child been sick recently?
One of the more common causes of chest pain in children is from costochondritis. This is a condition characterized by inflammation in the joint between the breastbone and the ribs, typically caused by a viral illness or frequent coughing. Costochondritis is not concerning, but in some cases it can be long lasting and your child may need a prescription anti-inflammatory to get rid of it.
- Was my child injured recently?
If your child was hit in the chest during a sporting event or even a fall, this could be a more obvious cause of the chest pain. However, even heavy lifting, frequent coughing, or intense aerobic exercise can strain the rib muscles and cause chest pain. You’ll want to contact your pediatrician if the pain is severe, persistent, or associated with difficulty breathing.
- Is my child stressed?
While it might be difficult to imagine a 7-year-old being stressed, school pressures and the loss of a loved one, for example, can all contribute to feelings of stress. What may be even more surprising is that stress can cause chest pain. While chest pain caused by stress is harmless – it’s really no different than a stress-related headache – the duration of the pain is understandably worrisome for parents.
- When does it hurt?
Does it hurt when your child is sitting down, or only when he or she is active? Chest pain from non-cardiac causes usually happens both when a child is at rest and when they are active. My first question is often whether the pain occurs during gym class or while watching TV. Chest pain that only happens with or immediately following moderate to vigorous activity, such as while running and playing competitive sports, is a different matter which does warrant further medical investigation.
- How long has it been hurting?
Has it been going on for months or even years? If yes, then it is almost certainly not caused by heart disease. Chest pain caused by cardiac disease is either so severe that no child could cover it up or ignore it, or it is progressive and associated with other problems such as passing out or worsening fatigue, that it would be highly unusual for the symptoms to continue over several months. However, non-cardiac chest pain is the very opposite; it can often by ignored, is not associated with other concerns, and often just lingers in the background.
- How painful is it? Mild-to-moderate or severe?
Typically mild-to-moderate chest pain is not related to the heart, and isn’t a cause for concern. However, the more concerning chest pain is when the pain is sudden and severe. Typically it will hurt so bad that your child will not want to go to school and will look like he or she is struggling with the pain. This kind of pain is most often caused by pericarditis, which is an inflammatory condition of the heart. Thankfully, pericarditis is very rare. But what’s interesting about it is that it’s the most common reason that a child’s chest pain is related to the heart. If your child has sudden onset of severe chest pain that is continuous and often occurs around the same time of an illness – contact your child’s pediatrician that same day.
The vast majority of the time, chest pain in children is not related to the heart. While there is no single medical history question or medical test that can determine the source of chest pain, hopefully the six questions discussed above can help parents and teens narrow down what’s potentially worrisome and what’s not. If you have any concerns at all, schedule an appointment with your pediatrician, and have your answers to the above questions ready. They will help steer your pediatrician in the right direction.
Editor’s note: For more frequent heart and health-related thoughts, follow Dr. Madsen on twitter: @MadsenNicolas