Heartburn is that awful burning sensation in your chest or throat, usually
when acid rises up from your stomach. Heartburn is always an annoyance. But if
you’re like many people with heartburn, you also probably find yourself
worrying from time to time. Could it be something more serious? Is there
something wrong with your digestive system? Or maybe you think it’s your
Even when you’re pretty sure it’s heartburn, it can be hard to know what to
do. Should you take an antacid, schedule an appointment to see your doctor, or
No matter what you eat, you worry that chronic heartburn will always be there.
You've tried all the antacids, followed a bland diet, given up on certain foods
completely. But still you wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes with
pain deep in your throat, other times with a sore throat and trouble
breathing, as if you were having an asthma attack. You try to sleep sitting up in a chair, and
realize with dismay: This has been going on for years.
Here’s information you can use to know what to do the next time heartburn
gives you that burning feeling.
What Is Heartburn?
Heartburn, also called acid indigestion, is a symptom of
gastroesophageal reflux (GERD). It can occur when acid or other contents from
your stomach "back up" into the esophagus. That’s the tube food passes
through going from your mouth to your stomach.
The problem stems from a muscle that may be weak or may relax at
inappropriate times. It’s called the lower esophageal sphincter or LES, and
it’s located between your stomach and your esophagus. If it doesn't close
quickly enough, it can’t prevent the acid backwash. That results in
When acid reflux is frequent, you may have a condition called GERD, or
gastroesophageal reflux disease.
How Do You Know If It’s Heartburn or Your Heart?
If you're trying to figure out if it's just heartburn from GERD -- which by
itself is rarely life-threatening -- pay attention to any other symptoms.
That’s the advice of Peter Galier, MD, an internal medicine specialist at Santa
Monica UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. He
is also an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California Los
Galier typically asks patients who complain of heartburn these three
Are you sweaty?
Do you have palpitations?
Are you short of breath?
If any of those symptoms occur with the heartburn, Galier says, you should
see a physician and make sure it is not heart-related.
Note the Time Your Heartburn Symptoms Occur
Think, too, about when the heartburn occurs. Galier says if it happens after
a big meal, and it's just the burning in the chest, with no other symptoms,
it’s more than likely heartburn or indigestion. But if you have any doubt, it's
wise to ask your doctor for an evaluation.
"If you have chest pain after a meal, it's more likely to be
reflux," agrees Glenn Eisen, MD, MPH, professor of medicine and director of
endoscopy at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. But that's
not a perfect test, he says. "It could be cardiac."
Phil Katz, MD, says that knowing what "classic" heartburn is like
may help. Katz is president-elect of the American College of Gastroenterology
and clinical professor of medicine at Jefferson Medical College in
“The classic heartburn symptom,” he tells WebMD, “is burning that starts at
the upper stomach or lower breastbone and progresses upward and occurs after a
meal or when bending over." He adds, "It's rapidly relieved by an
antacid within a few minutes.”