Any pressure or tightness in your chest can quickly sound alarm bells. If the discomfort seems to only come on after eating, though, you could be dealing with an issue in your esophagus or GI system.
Because the stomach and esophagus sit so close to the chest, discomfort in those areas can sometimes be felt in your chest, Aditya Sreenivasan, MD, a gastroenterologist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
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Experts call this kind of pain noncardiac chest pain — pain around your breastbone or heart that isn't actually related to the heart.
Noncardiac chest pain might feel like squeezing, heaviness or burning, and it can last for a few minutes to a few hours.
Here's a look at the things that can cause you to experience this kind of pressure or heaviness in the chest after eating food.
Is It a Heart Attack?
It can sometimes be hard to distinguish noncardiac chest pain from a heart attack. However, heart attack symptoms tend to come on suddenly, may feel very intense and aren't confined to after a meal, according to the Mayo Clinic. Common symptoms can include:
- Pressure, tightness, aching or squeezing in your chest that may radiate to your neck, jaw or back
- Nausea, upset stomach or heartburn
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweat
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
Call 911 immediately if you or someone you know is experiencing signs of a heart attack.
1. Heartburn or GERD
Heartburn or acid reflux is the most common cause of chest discomfort after eating, Dr. Sreenivasan says. When a person has chronic heartburn (more than twice per week), it's called gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD.
Heartburn often causes a burning sensation in the chest, especially after a big meal. That's because the esophagus — the tube connecting the throat to the stomach — is located right next to the heart. When acid splashes into it from the stomach, you can feel the pain radiating toward your chest, per the Cleveland Clinic.
The pain might feel worse when you lie down or bend over. The acid can also leave a sour or unpleasant taste in your mouth.
Anyone can get heartburn. But you're more prone to getting it if you have overweight, and it often strikes during pregnancy.
Certain foods are known for triggering heartburn too, including fried and fatty fare, which is why you might feel chest tightness after eating fast food or chest pain after eating pizza or steak.
Chest pain or pressure caused by heartburn can often be managed with an over-the-counter antacid like Pepcid, Dr. Sreenivasan says. The medication works to neutralize uncomfortable stomach acid within 30 to 60 minutes, which can help ease your chest pain and other symptoms.
That said, prevention is the best medicine. If you're consistently experiencing chest pain from heartburn, try avoiding the triggers that seem to give you reflux.
2. Overeating or Eating Too Fast
Eating too much or too quickly can make your stomach hurt, and it can make your chest feel heavy or uncomfortable too.
Again, it's because your stomach and your chest are so close to each other that pain from one area can be felt in the other, Dr. Sreenivasan explains.
Again, prevention is the key here, Dr. Sreenivasan says. If you tend to eat quickly and that makes your chest feel weird after eating, try tactics to help you eat slower, such as taking smaller bites (and chewing them thoroughly), putting your fork down between bites and eating without distractions.
Slowing down will also help you recognize when you're full sooner, so you're less likely to overeat.
Abdominal gas or bloating can create a feeling of pressure in your stomach that radiates up into your chest. (You might feel it in your back too.)
"The most typical area would be right under the left rib cage," Dr. Sreenivasan says.
Often, gas pains are sharp or jabbing.
Gas and bloating can happen for a number of reasons, and most people will experience it from time to time. It's more likely to hit from eating too much or eating too fast, or if you have a food intolerance, the Cleveland Clinic notes.
Carbonated drinks, constipation or swallowing too much air (like from chewing gum or drinking from a straw) can also give you gas.
Identifying what's giving you gas is the first step, so you can avoid or limit that food item or habit in the future.
To soothe chest pain or pressure from gas, try taking an over-the-counter anti-gas medication such as Gas-X, which breaks up gas bubbles and helps them pass through your digestive tract, per the Mayo Clinic.
Or try a natural remedy for gas, such as getting some light exercise or sipping peppermint tea.
4. Eosinophilic Esophagitis
A chronic disease of the esophagus, eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE) happens when white blood cells build up in the esophagus, leading to inflammation and tissue damage. This can lead to heartburn-like chest pain, trouble swallowing and food getting stuck in your throat, the National Library of Medicine says.
Anyone can develop EoE. But it's more likely to occur in white people assigned male at birth and in people with seasonal allergies, asthma, eczema or food allergies.
See your doctor if you think you have EoE. They may do an endoscopy, biopsy or other tests to make a diagnosis, per the National Library of Medicine.
There's no cure for EoE, but steroids and proton pump inhibitors may help with symptoms. Your doctor may also suggest dietary changes that can help.
5. Functional Dyspepsia
When a person has frequent or persistent stomach pain with no obvious medical cause, they may be diagnosed with functional dyspepsia. It's marked by pain or burning in the upper abdomen (which can sometimes be felt in the chest) and feeling full quickly, but symptoms can also strike when a person isn't eating, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Experts don't fully understand why some people get functional dyspepsia. But it's more common in people assigned female at birth, those who frequently take NSAID pain relievers, smokers, people with anxiety or depression and those who have a history of severe stomach infections.
A doctor can diagnose functional dyspepsia, per the Mayo Clinic. Treatment depends on your symptoms, but it might include a combination of behavior therapy, lifestyle changes and medications.
6. Hiatal Hernia
Hiatal hernias happen when the upper part of the stomach bulges through the large muscle separating the chest and abdomen. It's common in adults over 50, especially those with obesity, the Mayo Clinic notes.
Hiatal hernias don't always cause symptoms. But larger ones can cause heartburn and abdominal or chest pain after eating, an unusual feeling of fullness, acid reflux, trouble swallowing or shortness of breath.
See a doctor if you think you have a hiatal hernia. They may prescribe certain medications, such as those used to treat heartburn, per the Mayo Clinic. In more severe cases, you might need surgery to repair the hernia.
Unchecked stress is notorious for causing noncardiac chest pain, the Cleveland Clinic notes. But unlike the culprits mentioned above, anxiety-driven chest pressure doesn't just happen after you eat.
Instead, you might experience discomfort, heart palpitations, or a pounding sensation when your anxious feelings start to intensify.
Natural remedies for anxiety include exercising regularly and doing mindfulness activities like meditation or deep breathing.
If those aren't enough, consider talking to a therapist, who can help you get to the root of your anxiety and help you come up with effective coping strategies.
When to See a Doctor
You should let your doctor know if you're experiencing frequent or severe chest pain after eating, or if at-home measures aren't doing enough to help you feel better, Dr. Sreenivasan says. They may want to conduct tests to determine if you have an underlying GI problem, or if the issue is heart-related.
Also let your doctor know if you're experiencing symptoms like unexplained weight loss, bloody stool or rectal bleeding, food getting stuck in your throat, or anemia. These could be signs of a more serious GI condition.
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Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.