Any pain emanating from the chest is a cause for concern since vital organs like the heart and lungs lie here. However, not every chest pain may be serious. Many factors have to be considered when differentiating between pain that is potentially serious and life-threatening, from pain due to less serious or non-fatal causes. Sometimes the nature of the pain and accompanying symptoms can provide an indication of the possible cause of burning chest pain.
Why does the chest burn?
A burning sensation or burning pain is associated with various types of tissue injury. Superficial burning in the chest area is usually associated with the skin, subcutaneous tissue and muscles whereas deeper lying burning in the chest is often associated with the esophagus and acid reflux in particular. However, the latter is not always the case. Burning chest pain may not only be due to acid reflux.
Problems with the heart and lungs, as well other chest structures, may also be a cause of burning chest pain. As is the case with any discomfort or type of pain, a burning sensation or burning pain is a sign of some tissue irritation, injury or damage. While burning chest pain is not typically associated with the heart and lungs, it should not be and immediately assumed that a burning chest pain is due to heartburn (acid reflux).
Causes of Burning Chest Pain
There are various possible causes of burning chest pain which may emanate from the esophagus, heart, lungs or chest wall. It is important to differentiate between conditions involving these organs that may present with burning chest pain. While conditions involving the heart and lungs can be serious and life threatening within a short period of time, problems with the esophagus and chest wall are usually not as serious.
Acid reflux is one of the most common causes of a burning chest pain. In fact the main symptoms of acid reflux is heartburn, which is a burning sensation in the chest. Also known as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), it is a condition where the acid and enzymes from the stomach flows up into the esophagus. This causes irritation and inflammation of the esophageal wall.
The signs and symptoms of acid reflux tend to occur with overeating, consuming alcohol or caffeinated beverages, ingesting certain foods likes spicy meals, when lying flat and after eating meals.
- Excessive belching
- Regurgitation (sometimes)
- Bloated feeling
- Change in appetite
Read more on GERD.
Esophagitis and Esophageal Ulcers
Esophagitis is inflammation of the esophagus and if open sores form in the wall then it is known as esophageal ulcers. Both conditions commonly arise with acid reflux. However, various other modes of injury may cause inflammation (esophagitis). Esophageal ulcers (open sores) can also occur with excessive acid production in conditions like Zollinger-Ellison syndrome and possibly with H.pylori infection which causes gastritis and stomach ulcers.
The signs and symptoms of esophagitis and esophageal ulcers are similar to that of acid reflux. However, these symptoms may persist even without eating or the consumption of specific foods. Often the pain is more severe in esophageal ulcers and sometimes with esophagitis as well as compared to acid reflux pain (heartburn).
Chest Wall Pain
Pain emanating from the chest wall is not uncommon. It can occur with trauma to the chest wall (falls, contact sports, accidents and assault), muscle strain and even with labored breathing and persistent coughing. Various skin problems can also cause chest wall pain. This includes sunburn, acne, shingles, contact dermatitis and other skin diseases may also be the source of a burning sensation or pain.
The signs and symptoms of chest wall pain may be diverse because of the different possible causes of burning chest wall pain. Some of these symptoms may include:
- Rash or other skin lesions like pimples on the chest.
- Redness, bruising or even hematomas.
- Tenderness of the chest wall.
- Pain with movement of the chest wall or arms.
- Difficulty breathing in deeply.
- Swelling on the chest wall.
- Deformities of the chest wall usually associated with fractured ribs.
There are many different types of cardiac conditions that can cause chest pain and specifically burning chest pain. One of common concerns regarding cardiac causes of burning chest pain is a heart attack (myocardial infarction). Angina pectoris is another possibility and is commonly associated with coronary artery disease. However, other conditions of the other heart and its blood vessels, like carditis including pericarditis and pulmonary embolism, may also cause burning chest pain.
The symptoms may vary depending on the type of heart problem that causes burning chest pain.
- Shortness of breath
- Excessive sweating
- Referred pain to the left arm, neck, jaw or upper abdomen.
- Loss of consciousness
Read more on heart pain.
Similar to heart conditions, there are many different types of lung problems that can also cause burning chest pain. Pneumonia, pleuritis and even lung cancer can cause pain in the chest which be burning in nature. The lower airways, particularly the bronchi are also located in the chest. Therefore airway conditions like tracheitis and bronchitis should also be considered as possible causes of burning chest pain.
- Difficulty breathing
- Painful breathing
- Labored breathing
- Expectorating mucus and sometimes blood
- Abnormal breathing sounds like wheezing
Upper Abdominal Conditions
The organs of the upper abdomen are partly tucked under the rib case. This includes parts of the liver, stomach, spleen, kidney and portions of the intestines. Although these organs lies within the abdominal cavity, some people mistaken the chest cavity of consisting of the entire length of the rib case. Therefore liver, stomach, spleen, kidney and certain intestinal conditions that present with burning pain may be incorrectly associated with burning chest pain.
Referred pain is where a problem in one part of the body may cause pain to be felt elsewhere. This can also sometimes occur with burning chest pain. For example, conditions like gallstones can cause right shoulder pain. Similarly pain may radiate to the chest. This is seen with various upper abdominal conditions such as pancreatitis which may cause pain to radiate to the back and sometimes to the chest as well.