a man is squeezed around the chest by a boa constrictor

What Is Chest Tightness?

It’s not my most common asthma symptom but it’s certainly my most disliked: chest tightness. As an asthmatic since birth, I have experienced my fair share of chest tightness over the years, and it never gets more comfortable or less scary. Some sources will say that chest tightness is synonymous with chest pain, however, I believe them to be separate symptoms.

Interestingly, chest tightness is one of the few symptoms that people without asthma can experience and empathize with. What is chest tightness? This article will answer that and more as I share my personal experience, some science, and some personal practices that help with chest tightness.

My experience with chest tightness and asthma

I have never worn a corset, however, that is what I imagine happening in my chest when I experience chest tightness. I describe it as a corset to others because it feels like a physical barrier, holding my chest in as I try to inflate my lungs. As if I were being hugged too tightly as I try to inhale. Often, the constriction tightens with each attempted breath, spurring a counter-productive panic.

I don’t always experience this symptom with my asthma, it’s a secondary symptom, mostly. When I do experience it, it’s usually accompanied by stress or anxiety, as an exacerbation to my initial flare. I’m thankful for this, because, in all honestly, it’s terrifying.

My biggest fears to this day are drowning and suffocating, the feeling of not being able to breathe; stemming directly from the tightness of my chest during an asthma attack. I like to understand my fears, I find it helps me to rationalize and reduce anxiety. So, I dove into a bit of research and this is what I found.

The physiology of chest tightness

What is happening in your body when you experience tightness of your chest? Well, the tightness comes from the muscles in your chest, and other areas of your body, contracting; usually due to a sympathetic stress response.1 A sympathetic stress response is a “fight or flight” stress response, common in anyone experiencing a threatening situation, like an asthma attack. However, chest tightness is also associated with other conditions including anxiety, COPD, heart disease or even a respiratory virus. Any condition that evokes this stress response can lead to the chest tightening.

It’s common for asthmatics to experience chest tightness as a symptom during flare-ups, especially if there are stress and anxiety involved, like in my case. If you are like me, chest tightness actually exacerbates my distress as well, making a vicious cycle that moves quickly towards a serious attack. If you can prevent chest tightness, that's ideal. It’s important, though, if you are beginning to experience chest tightness, that you take action to counter it.

What can you do?

The Lung Institute provides a great list of ways to confront your chest tightness from asthma. It resonates with my practice as well. Here are some actions you can take when you feel the tightness coming on:2

  1. Slow your breathing - Preventing hyperventilation is important, so taking a moment to sit and slow your breathing down is a great way to lower your stress and address your breathing exclusively.
  2. Take deeper breaths - When you are able, start breathing with a longer cadence; I like to shoot for 8 second inhales and exhales. While doing this, I focus on letting my stomach inflate first, then my lower chest, then my upper chest. On the exhale, I push the air out from the opposite direction.
  3. Fix your posture - When stressed, our body can slouch or hunch as a result of contracting muscles; this can make it more difficult to get full breaths. Sitting upright will help to open your lungs and keep you from collapsing more under the stress.
  4. Seek medication -Rescue inhalers are great and should never be a last resort. If your medication does not help, calling your doctor to talk about other medications should be a priority.

When I experience chest tightness coming on, I sit down and meditate. Closing my eyes, sitting with straight posture, I focus on breathing slowly and deeply. As I breathe, I focus on and find appreciation for my breath, because gratitude and presence helps me to combat the anxiety. I have found that consistent meditation practice has helped me avoid chest tightening episodes as well.

Conclusion

Chest tightness is common among more people than just those of us with asthma. An underlying cause of chest tightness is stress and anxiety.1 A great way to manage chest tightness both during and as a preventive practice is meditation.2 The more you can control that stress response, the less of a hold it can take over your body.

If you are experiencing consistent chest tightness or chest pain, contacting your doctor about management options is always a good idea. If you have questions about meditation, I am always happy to share more about my practices. As always, I wish you well and steady breaths.

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