What is Heartburn?

Michael Pollick

Heartburn is a painful condition involving the upper digestive system, not the heart itself. Because the pain often radiates from the central chest region, some sufferers confuse the symptoms of heartburn with a heart attack. The condition is actually the result of stomach acids reacting strongly to certain foods during digestion. A small amount of stomach acid is forced up the unprotected esophagus and the resultant chemical burn causes moderate to severe pain.

Eating spicy foods can trigger heartburn.
Eating spicy foods can trigger heartburn.

Under ordinary circumstances, the esophagus which leads from the mouth to the stomach should not be exposed to stomach acids. The stomach itself contains a layer of mucus which protects its lining from the powerful digestive juices. The esophagus has no such protection, but it does have a sphincter muscle near the stomach which should work as a one-way valve. If this sphincter becomes weak or overwhelmed, stomach contents can be forced back up the esophagus and cause burns. This condition is called GERD, short for Gastroesophageal reflux disease.

Greasy food can cause heartburn.
Greasy food can cause heartburn.

Even if a sufferer does not have GERD, he or she may have a temporary condition called acid reflux. The stomach can be overwhelmed by excessive amounts of food or foods which are heavily spiced. The result is a churning sensation followed by a sudden urge to vomit. The entire esophagus from the vocal cords to the stomach may be affected by pain and severe heartburn incidents can lead to excruciating localized pain and difficulty speaking.

GERD may cause heartburn.
GERD may cause heartburn.

The most common treatment for heartburn is the immediate consumption of antacid tablets. Since excessive acid production is the root cause of the condition, these tablets contain a 'base' of calcium and carbonates. Chemically, an acid becomes neutralized when combined with a base. The excess acid essentially becomes water when antacid tablets reach the stomach. Effervescent tablets such as Alka-Seltzer work in much the same way, although the additional gas bubbles help to eliminate trapped air and pain medications treat other symptoms.

Antacids can be used to relieve heartburn.
Antacids can be used to relieve heartburn.

More recent advances have resulted in new prescription and over-the-counter acid reducing drugs. Sufferers can now take a small pill before ingesting troublesome foods. These medications such as Prilosec and Tagamet target the acid-producing mechanism of the stomach itself. If less acid is produced during digestion, then less acid will reach the esophagus should an acid reflux incident occur. This should reduce the intensity and the frequency of pain.

It is important to understand the difference between severe heartburn pain and a true heart attack or angina. Heartburn pain is localized in the central chest, while heart attack pain can radiate through the back and down an arm. Heartburn sufferers often report a series of sharp chest pains, while many heart attack victims usually feel more of a dull heaviness. When in doubt, it's always a good idea to visit the closest emergency room. It's better to be sent home with a prescription for antacids than to self-diagnose cardiac pains as indigestion.

Heartburn results when stomach acids back up into the esophagus and cause discomfort.
Heartburn results when stomach acids back up into the esophagus and cause discomfort.

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Discussion Comments


Instead of focusing on reducing acid with pills, people should look at what they are eating.

I had heartburn to dramatic extents for years. I thought I had ulcers, etc. I would wake up and puke sometimes for no reason (not a drinker). It would interfere with sleeping. It was awful. I took famotidine and pepcid completes all the time and they helped but they didn't cure anything.

I now eat the 'paleo diet' and guess what? I don't have heartburn anymore. It's all about what you eat.


Heartburn sucks. Feels like I'm going to vomit acid.


from more than 10 days i am suffering from heartburn and pain,about stool it not coming goodly or not clear too. please help me about this. thank you


It could be a hiatal hernia.


i NEVER had heartburn before my three pregnancies. never had it between the pregnancies either. now, after the third, i'm finding that i get heartburn fairly often. is it because 1. i'm a little older now (33) or because i still have a bit of pregnancy weight on? it's driving me crazy!

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