Any pain during exercise can be concerning and discouraging, but pain in the upper left chest can be terrifying. Automatically, the thought process goes to the heart. It is always important after an episode of chest pain to have the heart evaluated. When the results come back that there is no myocardial infarction, or heart attack, it is time to look at the structures that are in that area of the body that can cause burning pain. The heart, lungs, gastrointestinal system and the rib cage can all contribute to burning pain during exercise.
A reason that the heart causes pain can be angina. Angina is pain of the heart. This usually occurs during exertion or times of emotional stress. It usually is a pressure, squeezing or tightness, but can also feel like burning. This pain is directly under the sternum or just to the left of the sternum. A lack of blood or oxygen is thought to be responsible for the pain or discomfort. This pain usually stops with removal of the exertion or stress.
The lungs can cause a diffuse or very concentrated pain that increases with the more exhaling and inhaling that is done. Burning pain can be caused by fluid in the lungs, inflammation of the pleura around the lungs, or a combination of the two. If only a section of the lung is affected, there is not always a noticeable loss of lung function. A spontaneous collapse of part of the lung can occur and cause chest pain.
Esophageal spasms or gastrointestinal reflux can cause pain that that extends into the chest. Exercising can increase gastrointestinal reflux because of the change of the blood supply to the muscles being used during exercise, leaving the stomach to empty slower. This pain will resolve when the exercise has been stopped, the blood supply has returned to normal, and the stomach empties. Esophageal spasms are another cause of pain and are associated with stress. The body sometimes can see exercise as stress.
The rib cage is made up of muscles, tendons, nerves, ribs, sternum and the thoracic vertebrae. Inflammation of the junction of the rib and the sternum can cause upper left chest pain that will burn. It can be aggravated by exercise because of the increase in use of those structures as the rate of breath increases. A sprain or strain of the muscles or tendons of the rib cage can cause burning pain that is aggravated with use.