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What is causing this pain in my back?

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Back pain is a common reason for absence from work and for seeking medical treatment. It can be uncomfortable and debilitating.

It can result from injury, activity and some medical conditions. Back pain can affect people of any age, for different reasons. As people get older, the chance of developingTrusted Source lower back pain increases, due to factors such as previous occupation and degenerative disk disease.

Lower back pain may be linked to the bony lumbar spine, discs between the vertebrae, ligaments around the spine and discs, spinal cord and nerves, lower back muscles, abdominal and pelvic internal organs, and the skin around the lumbar area.

Pain in the upper back may be due to disorders of the aorta, tumors in the chest, and spine inflammation.

Causes

A man with visible spine holds his back.
Problems with the spine such as osteoporosis can lead to back pain.

The human back is composed of a complex structure of muscles, ligaments, tendons, disks, and bones, which work together to support the body and enable us to move around.

The segments of the spine are cushioned with cartilage-like pads called disks.

Problems with any of these components can lead to back pain. In some cases of back pain, its cause remains unclear.

Damage can result from strain, medical conditions, and poor posture, among others.

Strain

Back pain commonly stems from strain, tension, or injury. Frequent causes of back pain are:

  • strained muscles or ligaments
  • a muscle spasm
  • muscle tension
  • damaged disks
  • injuries, fractures, or falls

Activities that can lead to strains or spasms include:

  • lifting something improperly
  • lifting something that is too heavy
  • making an abrupt and awkward movement

Structural problems

A number of structural problems may also result in back pain.

  • Ruptured disks: Each vertebra in the spine is cushioned by disks. If the disk ruptures there will be more pressure on a nerve, resulting in back pain.
  • Bulging disks: In much the same way as ruptured disks, a bulging disk can result in more pressure on a nerve.
  • Sciatica: A sharp and shooting pain travels through the buttock and down the back of the leg, caused by a bulging or herniated disk pressing on a nerve.
  • Arthritis: Osteoarthritis can cause problems with the joints in the hips, lower back, and other places. In some cases, the space around the spinal cord narrows. This is known as spinal stenosis.
  • Abnormal curvature of the spine: If the spine curves in an unusual way, back pain can result. An example is scoliosis, in which the spine curves to the side.
  • Osteoporosis: Bones, including the vertebrae of the spine, become brittle and porous, making compression fractures more likely.
  • Kidney problems: Kidney stones or kidney infection can cause back pain.

Movement and posture

Example of poor posture when using a computer
Adopting a very hunched sitting position when using computers can result in increased back and shoulder problems over time.

Back pain can also result from some everyday activities or poor posture.

Examples include:

  • twisting
  • coughing or sneezing
  • muscle tension
  • over-stretching
  • bending awkwardly or for long periods
  • pushing, pulling, lifting, or carrying something
  • standing or sitting for long periods
  • straining the neck forward, such as when driving or using a computer
  • long driving sessions without a break, even when not hunched
  • sleeping on a mattress that does not support the body and keep the spine straight

Other causes

Some medical conditions can lead to back pain.

  • Cauda equina syndrome: The cauda equine is a bundle of spinal nerve roots that arise from the lower end of the spinal cord. Symptoms include a dull pain in the lower back and upper buttocks, as well as numbness in the buttocks, genitalia, and thighs. There are sometimes bowel and bladder function disturbances.
  • Cancer of the spine: tumor on the spine may press against a nerve, resulting in back pain.
  • Infection of the spine: A fever and a tender, warm area on the back could be due to an infection of the spine.
  • Other infections: Pelvic inflammatory disease, bladder, or kidney infections may also lead to back pain.
  • Sleep disorders: Individuals with sleep disorders are more likely to experience back pain, compared with others.
  • Shingles: An infection that can affect the nerves may lead to back pain. This depends on which nerves are affected.

Risk factors

The following factors are linked to a higher risk of developing low back pain:

  • occupational activities
  • pregnancy
  • a sedentary lifestyle
  • poor physical fitness
  • older age
  • obesity and excess weight
  • smoking
  • strenuous physical exercise or work, especially if done incorrectly
  • genetic factors
  • medical conditions, such as arthritis and cancer

Lower back pain also tends to be more common in womenTrusted Source than in men, possibly due to hormonal factors. Stressanxiety, and mood disorders have also been linked to back pain.

Symptoms

The main symptom of back pain is an ache or pain anywhere in the back, and sometimes all the way down to the buttocks and legs.

Some back issues can cause pain in other parts of the body, depending on the nerves affected.

The pain often goes away without treatment, but if it occurs with any of the following people should see their doctor:

  • weight loss
  • fever
  • inflammation or swelling on the back
  • persistent back pain, where lying down or resting does not help
  • pain down the legs
  • pain that reaches below the knees
  • a recent injury, blow or trauma to the back
  • urinary incontinence
  • difficulty urinating
  • fecal incontinence, or loss of control over bowel movements
  • numbness around the genitals
  • numbness around the anus
  • numbness around the buttocks

When to see a doctor

You should seek medical help if you experience any numbness or tingling, or if you have back pain:

  • that does not improve with rest
  • after an injury or fall
  • with numbness in the legs
  • with weakness
  • with fever
  • with unexplained weight loss

Diagnosis

A doctor will usually be able to diagnose back pain after asking about symptoms and carrying out a physical examination.

An imaging scan and other tests may be required if:

  • back pain appears to result from an injury
  • there may be underlying cause that needs treatment
  • the pain persists over a long period

An X-ray, MRI, or CT scan can give information about the state of the soft tissues in the back.

  • X-rays can show the alignment of the bones and detect signs of arthritis or broken bones, but they may not reveal damage in the muscles, spinal cord, nerves, or disks.
  • MRI or CT scans can reveal herniated disks or problems with tissue, tendons, nerves, ligaments, blood vessels, muscles, and bones.
  • Bone scans can detect bone tumors or compression fractures caused by osteoporosis. A radioactive substance or tracer is injected into a vein. The tracer collects in the bones and helps the doctor detect bone problems with the aid of a special camera.
  • Electromyography or EMG measures the electrical impulses produced by nerves in response to muscles. This can confirm nerve compression, which may occur with a herniated disk or spinal stenosis.

The doctor may also order a blood test if infection is suspected.

Other types of diagnosis

  • A chiropractor will diagnose through touch, or palpation, and a visual examination. Chiropractic is known as a direct approach, with a strong focus on adjusting the spinal joints. A chiropractor may also want to see the results of imaging scans and any blood and urine tests.
  • An osteopath also diagnoses through palpation and visual inspection. Osteopathy involves slow and rhythmic stretching, known as mobilization, pressure or indirect techniques, and manipulation of joints and muscles.
  • A physical therapist focuses on diagnosing problems in the joints and soft tissues of the body.

Chronic or acute pain?

Back pain is categorized into two types:

  • Acute pain starts suddenly and lasts for up to 6 weeks.
  • Chronic or long-term pain develops over a longer period, lasts for over 3 months, and causes ongoing problems.

If a person has both occasional bouts of more intense pain and fairly continuous mild back pain, it can be hard for a doctor to determine whether they have acute or chronic back pain.MEDICAL NEWS TODAY NEWSLETTERKnowledge is power. Get our free daily newsletter.

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Treatment

Back pain usually resolves with rest and home remedies, but sometimes medical treatment is necessary.

Home treatments

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medication, usually nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID), such as ibuprofen, can relieve discomfort. Applying a hot compress or an ice pack to the painful area may also reduce pain.

Resting from strenuous activity can help, but moving around will ease stiffness, reduce pain, and prevent muscles from weakening.

Medical treatment

If home treatments do not relieve back pain, a doctor may recommend the following medication, physical therapy, or both.

Medication: Back pain that does not respond well to OTC painkillers may require a prescription NSAID. Codeine or hydrocodone, which are narcotics, may be prescribed for short periods. These require close monitoring by the doctor. In some cases, muscle relaxants may be used.

Antidepressantssuch as amitriptylineTrusted Source, may be prescribed, but research is ongoing at to their effectiveness, and the evidence is conflicting.

Physical therapy: Applying heat, ice, ultrasound, and electrical stimulation — as well as some muscle-release techniques to the back muscles and soft tissues — may help alleviate pain.

As the pain improves, the physical therapist may introduce some flexibility and strength exercises for the back and abdominal muscles. Techniques for improving posture may also help.

The patient will be encouraged to practice the techniques regularly, even after the pain has gone, to prevent back pain recurrence.

Cortisone injections: If other options are not effective, these may be injected into the epidural space, around the spinal cord. Cortisone is an anti-inflammatory drug. It helps reduce inflammation around the nerve roots. Injections may also be used to numb areas thought to be causing the pain.

Botox: Botox (botulism toxin), according to some early studies, are thought to reduce painTrusted Source by paralyzing sprained muscles in spasm. These injections are effective for about 3 to 4 months.

Traction: Pulleys and weights are used to stretch the back. This may result in a herniated disk moving back into position. It can also relieve pain, but only while traction is applied.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT can help manage chronic back pain by encouraging new ways of thinking. It may include relaxation techniques and ways of maintaining a positive attitude. Studies have found that patients with CBT tend to become more active and do exercise, resulting in a lower risk of back pain recurrence.

Complementary therapies

Complementary therapies may be used alongside conventional therapies or on their own.

Chiropractic, osteopathy, shiatsu, and acupuncture may help relieve back pain, as well as encouraging the patient to feel relaxed.

  • An osteopath specializes in treating the skeleton and muscles.
  • A chiropractor treats joint, muscle and bone problems. The main focus is the spine.
  • Shiatsu, also known as finger pressure therapy, is a type of massage where pressure is applied along energy lines in the body. The shiatsu therapist applies pressure with the fingers, thumbs and elbows.
  • Acupuncture originates from China. It consists of inserting fine needles and specific points in the body. Acupuncture can help the body release its natural painkillers — endorphins — as well as stimulating nerve and muscle tissue.
  • Yoga involves specific poses, movements, and breathing exercises. Some may help strengthen the back muscles and improve posture. Care must be taken that exercises do not make back pain worse.

Studies on complementary therapies have given mixed results. Some people have experienced significant benefit, while others have not. It is important, when considering alternative therapies, to use a well qualified and registered therapist.

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a popular therapy for patients with chronic back pain. The TENS machine delivers small electric pulses into the body through electrodes that are placed on the skin.

Experts believe TENS encourages the body to produce endorphins and may block pain signals returning to the brain. Studies on TENS have provided mixed results. Some revealed no benefits, while others indicated that it could be helpful for some people.

A TENS machine should be used under the direction of a doctor or health professional.

It should not be used by someone who is:

TENS is considered “safe, noninvasive, inexpensive, and patient friendly,” and it appears to reduce pain, but more evidence is neededTrusted Source to confirm its effectiveness in improving activity levels.

Surgery

Surgery for back pain is very rare. If a patient has a herniated disk surgery may be an option, especially if there is persistent pain and nerve compression which can lead to muscle weakness.

Examples of surgical procedures include:

  • Fusion: Two vertebrae are joined together, with a bone graft inserted between them. The vertebrae are splinted together with metal plates, screws or cages. There is a significantly greater risk for arthritis to subsequently develop in the adjoining vertebrae.
  • Artificial disk: An artificial disk is inserted; it replaces the cushion between two vertebrae.
  • Diskectomy: A portion of a disk may be removed if it is irritating or pressing against a nerve.
  • Partially removing a vertebra: A small section of a vertebra may be removed if it is pinching the spinal cord or nerves.

Injecting cells to regenerate spine discs: Scientists from Duke University, North Carolina, developed new biomaterials that can deliver a booster shot of reparative cells to the nucleus pulposus, effectively eliminating pain caused by degenerative disc disease.

Prevention

Steps to lower the risk of developing back pain consist mainly of addressing some of the risk factors.

Exercise: Regular exercise helps build strength and control body weight. Guided, low-impact aerobic activities can boost heart health without straining or jerking the back. Before starting any exercise program, talk to a health care professional.

There are two main types of exercise that people can do to reduce the risk of back pain:

  • Core-strengthening exercises work the abdominal and back muscles, helping to strengthen muscles that protect the back.
  • Flexibility training aims at improving core flexibility, including the spine, hips, and upper legs.

Diet: Make sure your diet includes enough calcium and vitamin D, as these are needed for bone health. A healthful diet also helps control body weight.

Smoking: A significantly higher percentage of smokers have back pain incidences compared to non-smokers of the same age, height, and weight.

Body weight: The weight people carry and where they carry it affects the risk of developing back pain. The difference in back pain risk between obese and normal-weight individuals is considerable. People who carry their weight in the abdominal area versus the buttocks and hip area are also at greater risk.

Posture when standing: Make sure you have a neutral pelvic position. Stand upright, head facing forward, back straight, and balance your weight evenly on both feet. Keep your legs straight and your head in line with your spine.

Example of good back posture when using a computer

Posture when sitting: A good seat for working should have good back support, arm rests and a swivel base. When sitting, try to keep your knees and hips level and keep your feet flat on the floor, or use a footstool. You should ideally be able to sit upright with support in the small of your back. If you are using a keyboard, make sure your elbows are at right-angles and that your forearms are horizontal.

LiftingWhen lifting things, use your legs to do the lifting, rather than your back.

Keep your back as straight as you can, keeping your feet apart with one leg slightly forward so you can maintain balance. Bend only at the knees, hold the weight close to your body, and straighten the legs while changing the position of your back as little as possible.

Bending your back initially is unavoidable, but when you bend your back try not to stoop, and be sure to tighten your stomach muscles so that your pelvis is pulled in. Most important, do not straighten your legs before lifting, or you will be using your back for most of the work.

Do not lift and twist at the same time: If something is particularly heavy, see if you can lift it with someone else. While you are lifting keep looking straight ahead, not up or down, so that the back of your neck is like a continuous straight line from your spine.

Moving things: It is better for your back to push things across the floor, using your leg strength, rather than pulling them.

Shoes: Flat shoes place less of a strain on the back.

Driving: It is important to have proper support for your back. Make sure the wing mirrors are properly positioned so you do not need to twist. The pedals should be squarely in front of your feet. If you are on a long journey, have plenty of breaks. Get out of the car and walk around.

Bed: You should have a mattress that keeps your spine straight, while at the same time supporting the weight of your shoulders and buttocks. Use a pillow, but not one that forces your neck into a steep angle.

Last medically reviewed on February 23, 2017

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Medically reviewed by Peggy Pletcher, M.S., R.D., L.D., CDE — Written by James McIntosh on February 23, 2017

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Arthritis in the knee: What you need to know

Arthritis of the knee can make taking a step painful. Swelling, pain, and stiffness in the joint are just some of the symptoms that can occur when a person has this condition.

The knee joint is a hinge joint, named for its movement that is similar to the opening and closing of a door.

The joint consists of three main bones. Where two bones meet, each bone meets has a protective covering of cartilage. Additional pieces of cartilage, known as the meniscus, further support the knee.

All of these protective pieces of cartilage keep the bones in the knee from rubbing together. If this happens, it can be very painful.

The daily demands on the knee and its potential for injury make it a common source for arthritis damage. Different types of arthritis exist, and the type determines which treatment a physician recommends.

Symptoms

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Symptoms commonly linked to knee arthritis include:

  • crepitus, a clicking or popping of the knee joint with movement
  • pain that seems to be weather-related and gets worse with rain
  • stiffness
  • swelling
  • weakness in the knee joint that may cause it to buckle

Warmth and redness over the joint are often symptoms of gouty arthritis, but these can occur with almost any kind of arthritis depending on the degree of inflammation.

Knee arthritis symptoms typically worsen over time.

Later-stage arthritis symptoms may include visible joint deformities and stiffness that makes movement very difficult. However, severe symptoms of knee arthritis can appear suddenly.

Types

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), there are over 100 types of arthritis, and some of them are common in the knee.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of knee arthritis.

It happens when the protective cartilage that covers the bones wears away.

As the cartilage erodes, the bones of the knee joint start to rub together.

This causes bone spurs to develop on the ends of the bones. Bone spurs may be painful and can limit a person’s movement.

Find out more here about osteoarthritis of the knee.

Post-traumatic arthritis

Old injuries to the knee and surrounding joints can continue to affect a person and cause post-traumatic arthritis, a type of arthritis that can develop after an injury.

The injury causes extra wear to the knee joint, leading to osteoarthritis. There may be painful swelling in the knee joint.

Gouty arthritis

Gout is a form of arthritis in which uric acid crystals collect in the joints, including the knee joint. Uric acid is a waste product that forms when body tissues break down.

The crystals are like tiny needles to the knee joint. They can trigger inflammation, pain, and swelling.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder. This means the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells.

The condition tricks the body into thinking healthy tissues, such as protective cartilage, are harmful. As a result, the immune system destroys and damages these tissues. This can eventually destroy the joint.

RA can also cause joint swelling and soften the knee bones.

To discover more evidence-based information and resources for healthy aging, visit our dedicated hub.

Causes

Each type of arthritis in the knee has different causes.

Osteoarthritis

Doctors consider OA a “wear-and-tear” condition, because the use of the knee joint eventually wears out the cartilage. OA usually appears after the age of 50 years because it involves overuse.

Gouty arthritis

Gouty arthritis may have several causes or risk factors. These include:

  • getting older
  • having a family history of gouty arthritis
  • being male, as it more often affects men
  • obesity, as excess weight means there is more tissue that can be broken down into uric acid
  • using certain medications

Gout often starts in the big toe. A person may also have kidney stones and lumps under the skin.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Doctors do not know exactly what causes RA, but genetic factors may play a role.

Post-traumatic arthritis

Post-traumatic arthritis is a type of OA that stems from a previous injury to the knee joint, such as a sprain or a cartilage tear.

Diagnosis

Doctors diagnose knee arthritis through a physical exam, imaging studies, and lab testing.

First, a doctor will review a person’s medical history. Next, they will examine the knee by looking at it, touching it, and asking the person to walk on it, if possible.

The doctor will look for possible signs of arthritis and injury around the knee and elsewhere, as some forms of arthritis often affect other areas of the body.

They will also consider where in the body a person experiences their arthritis. Some types of arthritis tend only to affect one knee while others usually affect both knees.

A doctor will also recommend imaging studies to look for changes in the knee joint.

Examples include:

The last two scan options help a doctor identify damage to the soft tissues surrounding the knee bones.

Lab tests for rheumatoid factor, an antibody that often occurs in people with RA, can help to confirm a diagnosis of RA.

A uric acid test can help to diagnose gouty arthritis.MEDICAL NEWS TODAY NEWSLETTERKnowledge is power. Get our free daily newsletter.

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Treatments and home remedies

Doctors often treat early signs of arthritis with at-home care to lessen pain and prevent the symptoms from getting worse. In time, a person may need stronger medication or surgery.

Home therapies

Examples of knee arthritis care at home include:

  • losing weight if appropriate
  • favoring low-impact exercises over high-impact ones
  • applying heat or ice to the knee joint to reduce inflammation
  • using physical therapy exercises to strengthen the muscles around the joint and improve flexibility
  • taking over-the-counter pain relief medication, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen.
  • wearing a knee brace or wrapping an elastic cloth bandage around the knee

Alternative therapies

Some alternative or complementary therapies might also help to relieve pain and other symptoms.

Examples include:

  • Acupuncture: A professional inserts thin needles at specific points on the body.
  • Balneotherapy: This involves soaking the knee joint in warm mineral spring water.

However, there is no evidence to prove that these work for all people with arthritis.

Some people use a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machine to relieve pain. The machine applies a weak electrical current to points on the skin.

However, the American College of Rheumatology and the Arthritis FoundationTrusted Source do not recommend this treatment because there is not enough evidence to show that it helps

Medication

If home and self-help options do not work and symptoms get worse, a person may need medical treatment.

  • Duloxetine (Cymbalta) is an antidepressant drug that may help with chronic pain.
  • Capsaicin, which comes from chilli peppers, is present in some topical creams and ointments.
  • Risedronate (Actonel) is a treatment for osteoporosis, but it may help to preserve the cartilage.

All of these drugs can have adverse effects. A person should speak to their doctor about which one is suitable for their condition.

Capsaicin creams and ointments may cause redness and pain when you apply them. People should not use them if they have another health condition.

DMARDS for rheumatoid arthritis

People with RA, an auto-immune disease, may need drugs that affect the whole system, and not only the knee joint.

A doctor may recommend one of a new class of drugs, known as disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs).

These include:

  • hydroxychloroquine sulfate (Plaquenil)
  • leflunomide (Arava)
  • methotrexate (Rheumatrex)
  • mycophenolate mofetil (CellCept)
  • sulfasalazine (Sulfazine)
  • tofacitinib (Xeljanz)

Doctors can also use corticosteroid injections to reduce inflammation in the knee joint. However, these usually offer only short-term pain relief, and long-term use can have adverse effects.

Surgery

Knee surgery is typically the last-resort treatment for knee arthritis.

Examples of these procedures include:

Arthroscopy: A surgeon inserts small instruments into the knee to find out about possible areas of damage. At the same time, they can remove any damaged bone fragments from the knee or flush out the joint in an attempt to reduce pain. If there is a tear in the meniscus or ligaments around the knee, the doctor may be able to repair these areas at the same time.

Cartilage grafting: A doctor may take cartilage from another area of the body and graft it around the knee bones.

Total or partial knee replacements: The surgeon removes the damaged knee joint and replaces it with a metal or plastic joint, which should work as the original knee joint would.

Things to remember

There are some things a person with knee arthritis should think carefully about.

  • Staying active: Stopping all physical activity can lead to stiffness and muscle weakness, and a reduction in the range of motion in the joint. Find out more here about suitable exercises for people with knee arthritis.
  • Resting the knee is important, however, during pain flare-ups and after performing physical exercises.
  • Corticosteroid injections can relieve inflammation, but a person should not have an injection more than three to four times a year. Some can be used only one time.

Corticosteroid injections can affect multiple organ systems and cause osteonecrosis, the death of bone tissue. They might also weaken the protective cartilage around the knee joint.

People should always talk to their doctor about side effects before receiving these injections.

Other causes of knee pain

Arthritis is not the only cause of knee pain. Some other conditions have similar symptoms.

Examples include:

  • illnesses that affect the whole body such as lupus, or sepsis, a severe infection
  • inflammation of the areas around the joint, such as the tendons

Last medically reviewed on February 25, 2019

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Medically reviewed by William Morrison, M.D. — Written by Rachel Nall, MSN, CRNA — Updated on December 3, 2020

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Possible causes of a bubbling feeling in the chest

A bubbling feeling in the chest is a sensation that a person might describe as cracking, gurgling, or as if a bubble is about to burst. Many people experience it, and it has a variety of causes. Treatment depends on the cause.

This bubbling feeling is linked to a variety of conditions that range from mild to severe. The sensation may appear alone or occur alongside other signs and symptoms. People with a bubbling feeling in the chest should always see their doctor for a diagnosis.

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Possible causes

Here, we explore 12 common causes of a bubbling feeling in the chest:

1. Asthma

People with asthma may experience a bubbling sensation in the chest. Asthma is a lung condition that involves swelling and narrowing of the airways. It affects approximately 25 million Americans.

Other symptoms include:

  • coughing
  • shortness of breath
  • tightness in the chest

Asthma may be triggered by:

  • allergies
  • exercises
  • certain types of weather

Most people can manage their asthma with lifestyle changes and medication.

2. Atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heartbeat, often one that is faster than normal. It happens when the upper chambers of the heart are out of sync with the lower chambers.

Other symptoms can include:

  • chest pain
  • dizziness and confusion
  • heart palpitations
  • shortness of breath
  • tiredness
  • weakness

Atrial fibrillation requires medical treatment. While it is not usually life-threatening, it can lead to complications, such as blood clots in the heart.

3. Bronchitis

Bronchitis causes inflammation of the tubes that connect the lungs to the mouth and nose, which are called the bronchial tubes. It may be short-term, or acute, or last three months or more, which is considered chronic.

Other symptoms of bronchitis include:

  • chest tightness or pain
  • chills
  • a cough
  • mild fever

Treatment depends on the type of bronchitis a person has. Acute bronchitis is usually treated in the same way as a cold, and symptoms will typically go away in 10 to 14 days. Treatment for chronic bronchitis may include inhalers and oxygen therapy.

4. Collapsed lung

A collapsed lung or pneumothorax happens when air leaks from the lung into the area between the lung and the chest wall.

As well as the bubbling feeling, a collapsed lung can cause:

  • a bluish tone to the skin
  • fatigue
  • flared nostrils
  • low blood pressure
  • rapid heartbeat

A collapsed lung can occur suddenly for no reason or be caused by:

  • injury
  • a medical procedure
  • lung damage

A collapsed lung should be considered a medical emergency even when symptoms are mild. Symptoms typically resolve quickly, and there are usually no future complications with prompt treatment.

Below is a 3-D model of a pneumothorax, which is fully interactive. Explore it using a mouse or touchscreen.

5. Gallbladder inflammation

Inflammation of the gallbladder or cholecystitis can be caused by blocked bile ducts, tumors, or infection.

Symptoms often flare up after eating, particularly if the meal was large or high in fat. Symptoms include:

  • fever
  • nausea
  • pain in the upper right or center abdomen that may spread to the right shoulder or back
  • tenderness above the abdomen when touched
  • vomiting

Some people may also notice a bubbling feeling in the chest.

Treatment involves antibiotics, painkillers, or gallbladder removal. Untreated gallbladder inflammation can lead to serious complications, some of which can be life-threatening.

6. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

GERD involves the rise of stomach acid into the food pipe.

GERD can cause:

  • a bubbling feeling in the chest
  • chest pain
  • a cough
  • difficulty swallowing
  • feeling like there is a lump in the throat
  • heartburn, which is a burning sensation in the chest just behind the breastbone
  • sore throat
  • sour taste in the mouth

GERD can be caused by:

  • bacterial overgrowth
  • frequent use of over-the-counter painkillers, such as aspirin and ibuprofen
  • excessive intake of alcohol

The usual treatments for GERD and heartburn are medications and lifestyle changes.

7. Indigestion

Indigestion is pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen that can cause a bubbling sensation in the chest and gurgling in the abdomen after eating. Indigestion is also known as dyspepsia.

People may also experience:

  • bloating
  • heartburn
  • nausea

Dyspepsia can be caused by:

  • eating too quickly or too much
  • excessive intake of alcohol or caffeine
  • fatty or spicy food
  • smoking
  • some painkillers and antibiotics

Treatment involves lifestyle and dietary changes, as well as medications.

8. Pleurisy

Pleurisy or pleuritis involves inflammation of the thin membrane that lines the inside of the chest cavity and surrounds the lungs (pleura). It is caused by an underlying medical condition.

Symptoms include:

  • sharp chest pain that gets worse when breathing, coughing, or sneezing
  • shortness of breath
  • a cough and fever, in some cases

Treatment involves addressing the underlying condition and managing pain.

9. Pleural effusion

Pleural effusion occurs when fluid becomes trapped in the space between the lining of the lung and the chest wall. It is often a symptom of another condition, such as:

Symptoms include bubbling in the chest, cough, and shortness of breath.

10. Lung tumor

A lung tumor may be linked to a bubbling feeling in the chest, in rare cases. Lung tumors may be harmless or cancerous.

Many people with a lung tumor do not develop symptoms until the tumor has been there for many months or even years.

When symptoms are present, they may include:

  • chest pain
  • coughing up blood
  • fever
  • a persistent cough
  • shortness of breath
  • weight loss

11. Pneumomediastinum

A condition called pneumomediastinum may lead to the symptom of a bubbling sensation in the chest, although this is an uncommon cause.

This condition is caused by trapped air in the middle of the chest under the breastbone and between the lungs that results from injury or air leakage.

There is not always an obvious explanation, but people with pneumomediastinum may experience:

  • a cough
  • hoarseness
  • neck pain
  • shortness of breath
  • trouble breathing
  • vomiting

12. Precordial catch syndrome

Precordial catch syndrome arises when nerves in the chest are pinched or squeezed. It typically presents in children, adolescents, and people in their early 20s. It is not usually harmful, although alarming.

Symptoms include sharp chest pain that comes on suddenly and a bubbling sensation. Symptoms typically disappear with age, but there is no treatment.

Other causes

A gurgling or bubbling feeling in the chest may also be linked to other conditions, such as:

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When to see a doctor

If anyone experiences a bubbling feeling in their chest, it is crucial that they consult a doctor. Although the bubbling may merely be indigestion, it could be a sign of something serious, such as a tumor or collapsed lung.

Anyone who experiences the following symptoms should seek emergency medical treatment:

  • difficulty breathing, especially if it starts suddenly
  • high fever
  • inability to stand up or walk properly
  • irregular pulse
  • numbness in the arm or side
  • pain that spreads to the face or neck
  • severe abdominal pain
  • severe vomiting
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