What Is 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 -- the tube that connects your throat and stomach. It's caused by stomach acid. This leads to a burning discomfort in your upper belly or below your breastbone.

What Causes Heartburn?

Heartburn symptoms can start up because of a problem with a muscular valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). It's located where the esophagus meets the stomach -- below the rib cage and slightly left of center.

Normally, with the help of gravity, the LES keeps stomach acid right where it should be -- in your stomach. When it's working right, the LES opens to allow food into your stomach or to let you belch, then closes again. But if the LES opens too often or doesn't close tightly enough, stomach acid can seep into the esophagus and cause a burning sensation.

If your LES doesn't tighten as it should, there are often two things that contribute to the problem. One is overeating, which puts too much food in your stomach. Another is too much pressure on your stomach, often due to obesity, pregnancy, or constipation.

Certain foods can relax your LES or increase stomach acid, including:

Meals high in fats and oils (animal or vegetable) often lead to heartburn, as do certain medications. Stress and lack of sleep can raise how much acid your stomach makes and can cause heartburn.

If you're pregnant, the hormone progesterone can relax your LES and lead to heartburn. Smoking also relaxes the LES and increases stomach acid.

How Long Does Heartburn Last?

It can vary. For some folks, it can be just a few minutes. Sometimes it can last for several hours.

Heartburn happens about once a week for up to 20% of Americans and is common in pregnant women.

Occasional heartburn isn't dangerous. But long-term heartburn, known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can sometimes lead to serious problems, such as:

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Lisa Bernstein, MD on July 19, 2017

Sources

SOURCES: 

DeVault, K. and Castell, D. American Journal of Gastroenterology, 2005. 

Pettit, M. Pharmacy World and Science, December 2005.  

Talley, N. and Vakil, N. American Journal of Gastroenterology, October 2005. 

Feldman, M. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease, 9th ed., Saunders, 2010. 

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: "Digestive Diseases Statistics for the United States." 

Gabbe, S. Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies 5th ed., Churchill Livingstone, 2007.

Cleveland Clinic: "Heartburn Symptoms."

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