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, also called 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
- Chronic coughing
- Wheezing or other asthma-like symptoms