A pain in the chest is a classic symptom of a heart attack or angina, but often can be due to less sinister causes, according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) also produces a burning pain in the esophageal area of the chest, and according to a 2006 study in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, performing cardio can provoke this issue.
The esophagus is the tube that carries food from the mouth down into the stomach. It has a mechanism of temporary closure located just above the stomach, called the lower esophageal sphincter, so the acid and food in the stomach don't make their way back up into the esophagus. This generally opens to let food and liquid through and then closes back up. When the sphincter doesn't work properly, swallowed stomach contents can come back up, along with stomach acid, thereby irritating the esophagus and causing burning pain. This heartburn is common in healthy people, but if it persists the condition is called GERD.
GERD is a very common problem, and there are a variety of contributory factors. For example, a hiatal hernia, which is the protrusion of the stomach into the upper chest cavity, can make reflux more likely. An incompetent lower esophageal sphincter can also be the cause. Eating fatty foods, drinking alcohol, certain medications and overeating at meals can also provoke it.
A 2012 study published in the journal Current Sports Medicine Reports says that athletes commonly report gastrointestinal issues such as GERD, and exercise intensity matters. The development of GERD is possibly be due to physiological changes that occur in the body during exercise, such as blood being diverted from the stomach to serve the muscles, changes in hormones that can affect the gastrointestinal tract, and mechanical forces acting on the body. (See Reference 6)
Ironically, exercise and weight loss is often recommended as a treatment for GERD, but in moderation. It appears to be the aggressive movement of the body during high-intensity cardio that provokes the movement of acidic stomach mixture up into the esophagus, along with changes in body posture. Swapping high-intensity exercise for moderate intensity may help with symptoms, and exercises that require lying on the back should also be avoided. As regular reflux can cause potential issues in the future, such as a condition called Barrett's esophagus, a doctor should always be consulted if the symptoms persist for long periods. Medication may be necessary to control the reflux, along with lifestyle changes.
- American Gastroenterological Association: Understanding Heartburn and Reflux Disease
- NY Times: The Claim: Exercise Can Worsen Chronic Heartburn
- World Journal of Gastroenterology: Body weight, lifestyle, dietary habits and gastroesophageal reflux disease
- Sports Medicine: Gastroesophageal reflux disease and physical activity.
- International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders: Heartburn or Heart Attack?
- Current Sports Medicine Reports: Upper gastrointestinal issues in athletes.
Jillian O'Keeffe has been a freelance writer since 2009. Her work appears in regional Irish newspapers including "The Connacht Tribune" and the "Sentinel." O'Keeffe has a Master of Arts in journalism from the National University of Ireland, Galway and a Bachelor of Science in microbiology from University College Cork.