There are many different cause of chest pain and numbness, but some of the most common include heartburn, also known as acid reflux; heart attack; and angina, which is related to coronary artery disease. Acid reflux is not usually very serious, but both heart attacks and angina can be life-threatening if they aren’t treated promptly. Other common causes include blood clots in the lungs, swelling and inflammation of the chest cavity, and panic attacks. The treatment varies considerably for each. Most people with medical training can quickly distinguish the symptoms of serious causes from those of more minor irritations, but this often takes a lot of experience. People are usually advised to get medical attention any time they feel pain and numbness in the chest region, particularly if it’s ongoing or is accompanied by sudden bouts of dizziness, difficulty breathing, or shooting pain in the arm, all of which can indicate a more serious condition.
Heartburn, a very common cause of chest numbness and pain, occurs when stomach acid flows back into the esophagus, the tube that leads from the mouth to the stomach. This causes a burning sensation behind the breastbone in the center of the chest. Normally, heartburn is a non-serious reaction to foods eaten, medications taken, or even quick movements like lying down or bending forward. In some cases, heartburn is a sign of a more serious disease called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Both can be treated fairly successfully with lifestyle changes and medications.
Chest pain and numbness that is severe can be a sign of a heart attack. A heart attack is caused by a blood clot that blocks the flow of the blood through a coronary artery, thus interrupting the flow of the blood to the heart. It often causes a crushing or squeezing pain in the chest that is frequently accompanied by numbness across the torso and into the arms. Numbness of the left shoulder and arm is considered a common symptom of a heart attack, but numbness can also occur in the right arm, back, neck and jaw.
Another common cause is angina, which happens when there is a reduction in the flow of blood to the heart muscle. The condition is most frequently associated with pressure and heaviness in the chest, and it’s often described in terms of feeling someone standing on the chest and heart. Numbness is often part of the overall sensation. Angina is one of the symptoms of coronary artery disease, which occurs when the heart muscle is not receiving enough oxygen-rich blood.
Severe chest pain can also be caused by a pulmonary embolism, which occurs when one of more of the arteries to the lungs is blocked. The arteries become blocked by blood clots, normally formed in the legs, which have traveled through the body and make their way up to the heart. Large clots are particularly problematic since they often won’t fit through the narrower passageways near the heart, whereas they may have floated more freely elsewhere. Once they enter the lungs they can impede breathing or, in serious cases, cause entire lung collapse, both of which can be very serious.
Swelling and Inflammation
Other common causes of chest pain and numbness include pericarditis, a swelling and irritation of the membrane that surrounds the heart, and pleurisy, inflammation of the membrane surrounding the chest cavity and lungs. Very serious cases of chest pain can be caused by aortic dissection, which occurs when the inner layer of the aorta tears and allows blood into the middle layer. When this occurs the inner and middle layers separate.
Swelling and inflammation doesn’t have to be directly related to the heart to cause pain and numbness, though. Some serious respiratory infections can be the culprit, for instance. Patients in these circumstances usually have fluid built up in the lungs that causes pressure to radiate out.
Causes aren’t always strictly physical, either. Panic and anxiety attacks could be to blame, particularly in people who experience them with some regularity. Panic attacks are physiological responses to stress and anxiety. They are often described as sudden episodes of fear that can trigger extreme physical reactions for no apparent reason. Tightness in the chest, numbness in the chest and face, and difficulty breathing are all commonly part of the experience. They don’t usually last long, but they can be troubling just the same. Routine panic attacks may be a symptom of a panic disorder, and should be discussed with a physician or other qualified healthcare provider.