ELI5. Why does your chest hurt so bad when you inadvertently swallow a gulp of air while drinking?

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ELI5. Why does your chest hurt so bad when you inadvertently swallow a gulp of air while drinking?

In: Biology

Your esophagus doesn’t have the same nerves that your skin does, because it doesn’t need to feel things the way your skin does. Your esophagus is only really sensitive to three forms of stimulation: stretching (e.g. from something you swallow or from muscular activity), heat/cold, and chemical irritation (e.g. stomach acid causing heart burn). It often feels like bad chest pain because your heart and esophagus nerves link on the way to your spine before the signal reaches the brain.

When you gulp something too big, you can stretch your esophagus enough that it causes pain. Ditto if you swallow a mouthful of food that’s either too big, or which the wave-like muscle motion of your esophagus sort of pushes down in a weird way.

Incidentally, your colon only has the stretch receptors, as heat/cold/chemical isn’t relevant at that end. So when a surgeon removes polyps from you during a colonoscopy, she can tear/burn bits of the lining of your colon away and you won’t feel it at all even though no anesthetic is used! But when some gas or whatever causes the muscular layer of your colon to stretch, that you will feel.

This is not a reaction that everyone has. You should be aware of that and may want to ask your doctor if this indicates anything in particular. For me swallowing air doesn’t hurt.