Having chest pain in early pregnancy can be a frightful experience for an expecting mother. For instance, some women can develop an anxiety disorder during pregnancy, which can lead to anxiety attacks. Anxiety attacks produce similar symptoms to a heart attack, including chest pain and difficulty breathing. Another possibility is pain due to the natural widening of the rib cage. Petite women may be more likely to experience this. There are a number of varying causes behind chest pain in early pregnancy, which is why it is important to first speak to your doctor if you are unsure of the cause behind your discomfort.
One of the most common causes of chest pain in early pregnancy is heartburn. Countless pregnant women experience the symptoms of heartburn but have likely heard little in the way of warnings from nurses, midwives, or friends. It is often overlooked and outshined by other pregnancy discomforts, such as morning sickness, back pain, and hip discomfort.
What is Heartburn?
Heartburn is a condition that, contrary to what the name implies, has nothing to do with the heart. In fact, heartburn is a condition that includes three basic components: stomach acid, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), and the esophagus. There are plenty of “triggers,” or things that set off the symptoms of heartburn which we will talk about later on, but for now let’s just get an understanding of what goes on during a bout of heartburn. When we eat food, it travels down the esophagus and into the stomach. Once the food reaches the stomach the lower esophageal sphincter, comprised of a rounded bunch of muscles, contracts in order to keep the food and stomach acid within the stomach. Unfortunately, the LES is not impervious. When the sphincter becomes irritated, it can be forced to slacken or relax, which allows acid and sometimes bits of food to travel out of the stomach and up into the esophagus. As the acid enters the esophagus, the body instantly feels discomfort as the acid irritates the unprotected tissues of the esophagus. Unlike the stomach, the esophagus does not have a specialized lining to protect it against acid. This is definitely one of the most likely causes of chest pain in early pregnancy.
Symptoms of Heartburn
If you have never experienced heartburn prior to pregnancy, then you may be wondering if this chest pain in early pregnancy may simply be a recurring case of heartburn. Many people liken the sensation to a cold, burning feeling that starts at the parting of the rib cage. This sensation typically travels up the chest and can even reach the back of the throat. Along with this burning sensation, you may experience the foul, sharp taste of bile in your mouth. This is often accompanied by burping or the impulse to gag or vomit. You may also have difficulty swallowing as the muscles behind and under your jaw tighten. Chronic coughing during heartburn is also very common, as is feeling like swallowed food is becoming stuck in the lower throat or chest. More about heartburn symptoms.
What Causes Heartburn During Pregnancy?
Some women are lucky enough to never have experienced heartburn until they became pregnant. This leads many women to wonder what it is about being pregnant that leads to the painful development of heartburn. The truth is that pregnancy brings on abundant changes to a woman’s body which may bring her to feel as though she is standing in the body of a stranger. In reality, these changes are temporary and usually go away after the baby is born. Until then, it is a good idea to understand what things can cause a heartburn flare up so that appropriate action can be taken!
One little-known cause behind chest pain in early pregnancy is hormones. That’s right—hormone fluctuations can actually cause heartburn. It’s not as simple as all that, though. The main culprits are the hormones Relaxin and Progesterone. These hormones are responsible for helping the muscles in mom’s body to soften and become more adaptable to the fast-growing baby inside the womb. This is how the stomach, pelvis, ribs, and other areas are able to stretch so far. Unfortunately, the reach of these hormones doesn’t just affect the areas surrounding the baby—they also affect the lower esophageal sphincter. By inducing the sphincter to relax, stomach acid is able to escape the stomach and thus the symptoms of heartburn are produced. This is one cause behind chest pain in early pregnancy that mom can’t always prevent, however she can take control of her diet and eating habits and reduce the amount of heartburn flare-ups.
During pregnancy, you may feel compelled to eat foods that you normally wouldn’t care for. If these foods are spicy, chocolaty, or caffeinated in nature, then this could be one of the main reasons why you have been experiencing chest pain in early pregnancy. Foods that are particularly spicy, acidic (such as tomatoes), or that contain caffeine can force the lower esophageal sphincter to relax and also stimulate the stomach into producing more acid. Fatty and greasy foods are also well-known as heartburn triggers. Try to avoid these foods whenever possible!
Another way that heartburn can be triggered or worsened is by lying down too soon after eating. For pregnant women especially, the desire to take a cat nap or retire to bed can be extremely compelling soon after eating when the body wants to take advantage of the chance to absorb nutrients without using too much extra energy. Instead of lying down in a fully extended position, try propping yourself up with plenty of pillows so that you are reclined. This will take the pressure off of the LES and allow it to work properly.
Another culprit behind heartburn in pregnancy is overeating. We tend to forget that a growing baby in the tummy means less room for the stomach to expand. During meals times, it can be tempting to eat regular portions, three times a day—which ultimately leads to overstuffing the stomach, putting pressure on the LES. Try eating five or six smaller meals instead of three larger ones. Eat when you’re hungry but try not to wait too long between meals, which will cut back on overindulgence at mealtimes.
Continue to How to cope with early pregnancy heartburn article.
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