Experiencing chest discomfort can be a frightening thing, but it doesn't always mean something is wrong with your heart. Several digestive issues can also cause chest discomfort, particularly problems with the esophagus -- the long, muscular tube that connects your mouth to your stomach. Regardless of the source, however, chest discomfort that is persistent or severe requires examination by a qualified medical practitioner.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, occurs when the contents of your stomach leak backward into your esophagus, causing irritation. This irritation can result in symptoms of a burning sensation in the chest or the feeling that food is stuck behind your breastbone. Symptoms of GERD are usually worse at night and are exacerbated by eating, bending, stooping or lying down. Nausea often accompanies the chest discomfort associated with GERD. The symptom of a burning sensation in the chest is commonly referred to as heartburn, although it does not directly affect the heart. Taking antacids can often relieve the chest discomfort caused by GERD.
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The gallbladder is a small organ located on the right side of the abdomen just below the chest. It is responsible for pushing bile -- a liquid manufactured in the liver that helps break down fats for easier digestion -- into the small intestine. Imbalances in the substances that make up bile can cause stones to form in the gallbladder. Gallbladder stones are often symptomless, but they can sometimes cause discomfort, particularly after a meal high in fats. The discomfort that occurs as a result of gallbladder stones is commonly referred to as a gallbladder attack and is typically located on the right side of the chest just below the bottom of the rib cage.
Problems that occur in the stomach can cause chest discomfort, particularly issues that create a burning sensation in the area on the left side of the body under or behind the rib cage. Stomach ulcers -- open sores in the stomach lining -- are a problem commonly associated with a burning sensation in the chest or abdominal region, as is gastritis, which is caused by inflammation of the stomach lining. The burning sensation associated with stomach ulcers and gastritis is often relieved by eating a meal or taking antacids.
A variety of issues with the esophagus, other than GERD, can also cause chest discomfort. For example, the esophagus has muscles and those muscles can spasm, resulting in a cramplike sensation in the chest. Other problems that cause chest discomfort include a rupture in the esophagus, as well as tumors or varicose veins that occur within or on the surface of the esophagus. The esophagus can also narrow -- a condition referred to as a stricture -- for a variety of reasons, which can result in chest discomfort and difficulty swallowing.
Chest discomfort that occurs on a regular basis or is severe requires evaluation by a medical practitioner. The close proximity of the digestive organs in the chest and abdomen means that chest discomfort can happen for numerous reasons, and it often requires several, specific tests to determine the exact cause. Seek immediate medical attention if the chest pain or discomfort occurs suddenly and creates a sensation of tightness or pressure in the chest; or if the pain or discomfort radiates to your jaw, left arm or shoulder blades; or if you also experience nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, sweating or a rapid heartbeat.
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.