Chest pain can make you wonder if you’re having a heart attack. Yet, it can also be one of the many common symptoms of acid reflux.
Chest discomfort that’s related to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is often called noncardiac chest pain (NCCP), according to the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG).
The ACG explains that NCCP can imitate the pain of angina, which is defined as chest pain coming from the heart.
Learning ways to distinguish the different types of chest pain might put your mind at ease and help you to treat your acid reflux more effectively.
But it’s important to remember that the symptoms of a heart attack need to be taken very seriously. Because a heart attack requires immediate medical attention, seek help if you’re unsure about the reason for your chest pain.
Cardiac chest pain and NCCP can both appear behind your breastbone, making it hard to distinguish between the two types of pain.
Chest pain involving the heart is more likely than reflux-related pain to spread to other parts of your body. These places include your:
- arms, especially the upper part of your left arm
Chest pain stemming from GERD may affect your upper body in some cases, but it’s most often centered either behind your sternum or just underneath it in an area known as the epigastrium.
NCCP is usually accompanied by a burning behind your breastbone and may not be felt as much in the left arm.
Esophageal spasms are the tightening of the muscles around the food tube. They happen when acid reflux or other medical issues cause damage within the esophagus.
In turn, these spasms can cause pain in your throat and the upper area of your chest as well.
You may be able to tell what type of chest pain it is by assessing the type of pain you’re feeling.
Common ways that people describe pain associated with heart disease include:
- tight like a vice
- heavy like an elephant sitting on the chest
NCCP, on the other hand, may feel sharp and tender.
People with GERD may have temporary, severe chest pain when taking a deep breath or coughing. This difference is key.
The intensity level of cardiac pain stays the same when you breathe deeply.
Reflux-related chest discomfort is less likely to feel like it’s coming from deep within your chest. It may seem like it’s closer to the surface of your skin, and it’s more often described as burning or sharp.
Ask yourself if your chest pain changes in intensity or goes away completely when you change your body position to figure out the cause of the discomfort.
Muscle strains and GERD-related chest pain tend to feel better when you move your body.
The symptoms of acid reflux, including chest pain and heartburn, may get a lot better as you straighten your body to a sitting or standing position.
Bending and lying down can make GERD symptoms and discomfort worse, particularly right after eating.
Cardiac chest pain keeps hurting, regardless of your body position. But, it can also come and go throughout the day, depending on the severity of the pain.
NCCP associated with indigestion or a pulled muscle tends to be uncomfortable for a long period of time before going away.
Assessing other symptoms that occur with chest pain can help you distinguish one form of pain from another.
Pain caused by a cardiac issue can make you feel:
- short of breath
- numb in the left arm or shoulder
Noncardiac, gastrointestinal causes of chest pain can include a variety of other symptoms, including:
- trouble swallowing
- frequent burping or belching
- a burning sensation in your throat, chest, or stomach
- a sour taste in your mouth caused by regurgitation of acid
GERD isn’t the only cause of NCCP. Other causes can include:
- a blood clot lodged in the lungs
- inflammation of the pancreas
- inflammation of the cartilage that holds the ribs to the breastbone
- injured, bruised, or broken ribs
- a chronic pain syndrome, such as fibromyalgia
- high blood pressure
You should take chest pain seriously. Speak with your doctor about your symptoms.
Your doctor may perform an EKG or stress test. They may also draw blood for tests to rule out heart disease as the underlying cause if you don’t have a prior history of GERD.
Usually, a full medical history and testing can help your doctor find the reason for your chest pain and put you on the road to recovery.
The Healthline FindCare tool can provide options in your area if you need help finding a primary care doctor.
Chest pain that accompanies frequent heartburn can be treated with proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). A PPI is a type of medication that reduces acid production in your stomach.
A prolonged trial of PPI drugs can help relieve symptoms so that noncardiac-related chest pain will no longer be a part of your life.
Your doctor may also recommend cutting out certain types of food that can trigger symptoms, such as fried foods, spicy foods, and citrus fruits.
People can have different food triggers, so it can help to keep a record of what you ate before you experienced heartburn.
If you think your chest pain is heart-related, seek emergency care. Your individual treatment will depend on what your doctor determines is the cause.