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Pregnancy and Heartburn

Despite its name, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. (Some of the symptoms, however, are similar to those of a heart attack or heart disease.) Heartburn is an irritation of the esophagus that is caused by stomach acid and is a common pregnancy complaint, especially in the third trimester, when the growing uterus places pressure on the stomach.

With gravity's help, a muscular valve called the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES, keeps stomach acid in the stomach. The LES is located where the esophagus meets the stomach -- below the rib cage and slightly left of center. Normally it opens to allow food into the stomach or to permit belching; then it closes again. But if the LES opens too often or does not close tight enough, stomach acid can reflux, or seep, back into the esophagus and cause a burning sensation.

Occasional heartburn isn't dangerous, but chronic heartburn can indicate serious problems, such as gastritis or gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Heartburn is a daily occurrence for 10% of Americans and 50% of pregnant women. It's an occasional nuisance for another 30% of the population.

Symptoms of Heartburn During Pregnancy

Common heartburn symptoms reported by pregnant women include:

  • A burning feeling in the chest just behind the breastbone (the sternum) that occurs after eating and lasts a few minutes to several hours
  • Chest pain, especially after bending over, lying down, or eating
  • Burning in the throat -- or hot, sour, or salty-tasting fluid at the back of the throat
  • Belching
  • Chronic coughing
  • Hoarseness
  • Wheezing or other asthma-like symptoms  

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Mikio A. Nihira, MD on August 14, 2012
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