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Causes of Burning Pain in the Chest & Back

author image Matthew Fox, MD
Dr. Matthew Fox graduated from the University of California with a Bachelor of Arts in molecular, cell and developmental biology and received a M.D. from the University of Virginia. He is a pathologist and has experience in internal medicine and cancer research.
Causes of Burning Pain in the Chest & Back
The chest contains many organs. Many different pathological processes can affect these organs. Photo Credit Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images

Burning pain in the chest and back can be a symptom of a serious medical condition and requires prompt medical evaluation. There are many possible causes however. The chest contains many different organs, so pain in the chest and back can be indicative of any number disease or disorders in several possible organs.

Cardiac and Vascular Causes

Some of the most worrisome possible diagnoses for symptoms of chest and back pain involve the heart and major blood vessels. Heart attacks tend to cause dull pain, while some may cause no pain at all. According to "Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine" it is possible for a heart attack to cause vomiting, for example. Likewise, it may cause burning chest and back pain. Another condition is pericardiitis. Pericarditis is inflammation of the sac around the heart and can be caused by infections with viruses, bacteria or the immune system improperly attacking the lining.

In addition to the heart, the large vessels in the chest can develop problems, causing pain. An aortic dissection is also a medical emergency. The aorta is the main blood vessel coming off the heart. In this condition, the inner layer of the blood vessel tears away from the vessel wall.

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GI Tract Causes

The esophagus is the passageway for food to move from the mouth to the stomach. Problems in the esophagus can cause pain that radiates to the chest and back. GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as heart burn, is pain in the esophagus from stomach acid refluxing into the esophagus and can be quite painful. Infections in the esophagus can cause similar pain, but are less common unless a person has a weak immune system, according to "Robbins and Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease" by Dr. Vinay Kumar.

Musculoskeletal and Nerve Problems

Pain in the bone, joints and connective tissue can also cause pain in the back and chest. Costochondritis is inflammation of the cartilage of the ribs. Severe costochondritis is called Tietze's syndrome. Nerve problem can also cause burning pain in the back and chest. Herpes zoster is a reactivation of the chicken pox virus, generally in older persons. It infects the nerves and can cause burning pain before causing lesions on the skin.

Pulmonary Problems

Numerous lung problems can cause back and chest pain. A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot in the lungs that can cause pain with inspiration and expiration and shortness of breath. Pneumonia is an infection of the lung, usually by viruses, bacteria or fungi, and can also manifest as pain in the back and chest.

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  • "Harrison's Principles of Medcine"; Anthony S Fauci; 17th Ed 2008
  • "Robbins and Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease"; Vinay Kuma et al; 8th Ed 2009
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