What is heartburn?

Heartburn is a burning feeling you get in your esophagus. Despite its name, it has nothing to do with your heart. It’s caused by stomach acid. If you get it every once in a while, it’s nothing to worry about. If you have chronic heartburn you may have acid reflux disease (GERD). This can lead to other, more serious health problems, so you should talk to your doctor.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Many people get burning and pain in their stomachs after eating a meal. Find out what the symptoms are for heartburn as Dr. Oz talks with Dr. Robynne K. Chutkan in this video.

Ellen Whitehurst
Health Education Specialist

Heartburn is actually not a burn nor does it affect the heart but, rather, is a result or an irritation caused by too much acid backing up for the stomach and affecting the esophagus. That why be that so many now refer to this same condition as acid reflux as that title is far more indicative of the condition. Heartburn is the result of eating or drinking caffeine, chocolate, cola, animal fats, friend or spicy foods, tomatoes, oranges, grapefruits or any and all other acid producing foods. Stress can also aggravate heartburn as active stomach acids react to that emotional state. Slippery elm bark, an all natural remedy available in most health food stores will neutralize acid and absorb gas while aiding digestion too. Use one teaspoon of slippery elm powder or one of slippery elm bark in a cup of just boiled water and drink that slowly down. It should help prevent any excess acid from coming up.

Dr. Lawrence S. Friedman, MD

Heartburn is an expression of a condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), often called "reflux," in which acid, pepsin (several enzymes secreted by the stomach to break down protein), or both rise from the stomach into the esophagus, much like water bubbling into a sink from a plugged drain.

The burning sensation is usually felt in the chest just behind the breastbone and often extends from the lower end of the rib cage to the root of the neck. It can last for hours and is sometimes accompanied by the very unpleasant, stinging, sour sensation of highly acidic fluid rushing into the back of the throat.

But the heart of heartburn and GERD is the burning behind the sternum. The sensation can be aggravated by many things, ranging from emotional stress to a variety of foods and even particular positions, like reclining or bending forward. While GERD—and its symptom, heartburn—can be difficult to cope with, many people manage quite well by controlling such things as stress, diet or body position. However, many others spend countless hours and untold sums of money looking for relief.

Heartburn is a burning feeling in your chest. It's not a problem with your heart. It's a problem with how your body handles food. It happens when acid from your stomach backs up into your food pipe (esophagus).

Most people have heartburn from time to time. There are many simple things you can do to treat it. But if you have heartburn often, you may need to see a doctor.

Heartburn is usually experienced as a burning sensation or pain behind the breastbone or a backup of bitter acid into the mouth. Ten percent of Americans experience it daily, and 25 percent of pregnant women have heartburn. This discomfort is caused when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) does not close properly and the stomach contents leak back into the esophagus.

Reflux is a condition where stomach acid makes its way up into the esophagus (the tube that leads from the throat down to the stomach). Once there, it irritates the lining of the esophagus (and, in turn, the people suffering from it), and causes a burning pain often felt in the middle of the chest—hence the common name “heartburn.”

People with this condition also frequently taste sour, acid burps that seem to redefine nasty. The afflicted can even be awakened at night with shortness of breath, wheezing or other asthma-like symptoms.

Reflux is not just a nuisance, though. Left untreated, it can result in webs of tissue growing across the esophagus, making it nearly impossible for food to make its way to the stomach. People even show up at the emergency room convinced that they are having a heart attack, only to find out that they have severe reflux. More seriously, though, long-term exposure to acid in the esophagus can lead to cellular changes that can eventually become cancer.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.