6 Questions to Ask When Your Child Complains of Chest Pain

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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

Dr. Nicolas Madsen

About the Author: Dr. Nicolas Madsen

Nicolas Madsen, MD, is a cardiologist at Cincinnati Children’s Heart Institute, with special interest in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. He is focused on research and community outreach programs to find better ways to screen and educate children and adolescents regarding their risks for heart disease or sudden cardiac arrest.

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  1. Anne August 19, 13:37
    Hi i am 12 years old and sometimes my chest just randomly starts hurting. sometimes it hurts a lot sometimes not, i get it usually like 1 time a month but sometimes its more. Dome anyone know what it could be? Or has someone had the same experience? And should i be worried
    • Minus August 23, 01:35
      I have the same problem, and I am the same age, it usually happens once every two months for me but it has happened twice in this past week. I used to just ignore but they are sharp pains and they effect my breathing. So now you know you aren't alone and I'm experiencing this to.
    • FantasticFox November 08, 18:39
      I'm 11 and have that aswell
  2. Emily September 01, 21:00
    Hi. I'm 13 years old and I play competitive soccer and do track. I tend to have pain in my chest as well after a tiring run/workout/practice. It lasts a while though and when it goes away, it doesn't come back until I run/workout/practice again. Knowing I get this pain, I get worried when I exercise. Should I be worried? How can I prevent this? What could it be?
    • Rachel Camper
      Rachel Camper September 05, 10:18
      Hi Emily, I am sorry to hear that you're experiencing chest pain. I think your first step, if you haven't already, is to discuss it with your parents. You might want to watch Dr. Madsen's video at the top of this post together to determine which symptoms are worrisome and to discuss if a checkup with your doctor is a good idea.
  3. Crisha September 21, 11:44
    Hi i'm 16 years old i been havin chest pain since grade 8 i'm grade 11 now i thought it's gone but not i been having chest pain a lot lately and i didn't tell my parents because they will get mad at me
    • Rachel Camper
      Rachel Camper September 22, 09:44
      Hi Crisha, I think it would be best to inform your parents so that you can determine whether or not your symptoms are worrisome together. It might help to watch Dr. Madsen's video at the top of this post as a first step. If you both are still concerned after watching it, a check-in with your doctor is never a bad idea.
  4. Sissy October 16, 10:38
    My daughter has been complaing since she was 6 that her chest hurts. An she is now 7 an still complaing is it somthang i need to worry about or what
    • Rachel Camper
      Rachel Camper October 17, 11:50
      Hi Sissy, Thanks for taking the time to reach out to us. If you haven't already, I recommend watching Dr. Madsen's video at the top of this post. It does a great job helping to explain the symptoms that may be worrisome. If you're still concerned, a checkup with your daughter's doctor is never a bad idea. Hope this helps!
  5. D’Carlos October 16, 19:12
    Hi there, I’m 15 gonning to be 16 in December which means I’m in GCSE years, yay. I’ve been getting these sudden chest pains and head pains since 14 August 2017 (the day I’m posting s the 16/08/17). They last around a a couple of seconds and then go and sometimes come with no warning. I’ve been to A and E twice (more times in my entire life) and they said everything was fine. The pains started to happen after my undesended testicle surgery, everything thing was fine surgery went as plan. See the thing is I’m a very healthy child 100% attendance every year since reception so for this to happen to me is a suprise. Any help would really help.
    • Rachel Camper
      Rachel Camper October 17, 11:57
      Hi D'Carlos, I'm sorry to hear that you've been in pain. If you haven't already, please discuss what's going on with your parents so that you can work on a game plan together. You may even want to watch Dr. Madsen's video with them, to help determine which symptoms may be worrisome. If you're still concerned, scheduling an appointment with your doctor for peace of mind is never a bad idea.
  6. Lu November 14, 20:07
    My 10 year old grandson has just been diagnosed with pancreatitis. He vomits quite often at home for no apparent reason, but never at my house. He spends each weekend with me and he's fine. He didn't come for 3 weeks and still got sick at home. I'm so confused. Please help. Am I doing something wrong?
    • Rachel Camper
      Rachel Camper November 21, 10:29
      Hi Lu, Is your grandson having chest pain? I think it's probably best to get in touch with your grandson's gastroenterologist to gain his or her perspective on the symptoms he's having. Hope this helps!
  7. SOPH04 November 19, 18:16
    Hi im sophie im 13 and i have been having chest pains for 2 weeks. Sometimes i have shortness of breath and sharp pain in my chest. My body seems colder than usuall but never goes back to how it was (warm/hot) i went in ambulance 2 weeks ago they did ecg and said i was fine then last saturday i went to a &e cos of chest pain they said it probs is your muscle but i dont think it isnt
    • Rachel Camper
      Rachel Camper November 21, 12:03
      Hi SOPH04, I am sorry to hear that you're having chest pain. If you haven't already, please watch Dr. Madsen's video at the top of this post with your parents. It may help you determine which symptoms are worrisome and which aren't. If you're still concerned, it may be best to follow up with the specialist who performed your EKG.
  8. Natalie December 13, 07:52
    Is there anything that an be done to reduce the pain, Advil or Tylenol? This exact thing is happening to my 7 year old.
    • Dr. Nicolas Madsen
      Dr. Nicolas Madsen Author December 13, 12:46
      Natalie – For a child around 7 years old, you could start with some Tylenol. The use of the medication really depends on how long the episodes last and if they are frequent or predictable. If the episodes are brief and random, then by the time you find the Tylenol and give it, the moment will have passed. But if the episodes are longer (maybe 45 min or more), then a little Tylenol might help. Of course, it is also important for me to add that while Tylenol is a safe medication, I would not advise giving it regularly over a long period of time because of the potential for liver injury (meaning for more than 2 weeks as an example). Hope that helps.
  9. fleckolight January 06, 04:12
    My 11 year old son came back from a short holiday complaining that his chest hurt whenever he runs. It's been happening for about a week. He says whenever he runs or jumps or dances - never when sitting or eating or in resting state. He said it feels like a bruise when it happens. He couldn't feel it when he took a deep breathe in but could feel it slightly when I pushed on his chest. Am I right for worrying and going and checking it out with doctor next week?
    • Rachel Camper
      Rachel Camper January 09, 10:42
      Hi fleckolight, It's never a bad idea to have a doctor check something out for peace of mind.
  10. Aiden January 08, 12:46
    Well recently before this weather hit us when baseball was one of my favorites but this one pitcher hit me in the chest and recently it's been hurting- Age 13
    • Rachel Camper
      Rachel Camper January 09, 10:48
      Hi Aiden, If you haven't already, please talk to your parents about your chest pain. You might want to watch Dr. Madsen's video together, and decide if your pain warrants a trip to the doctor.