Heartburn, or acid indigestion, is one of the most common stomach ailments you’ll encounter during your lifetime. Heartburn is the primary symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a potentially serious medical condition that can erode your esophagus and cause other complications. You can also have occasional heartburn without larger GI issues.

According to Harvard Medical School, heartburn is especially prevalent in the United States, where more than 30 percent of the population experiences heartburn on a weekly basis. Almost half of adults who suffer from heartburn report that their discomfort impacts their job performance. Learn the causes of heartburn and treatment methods to prevent discomfort.


When you eat, food and liquids pass from your esophagus to your stomach, where they’re mixed with stomach acids and other substances that aid digestion. A small muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) sits at the meeting point between the esophagus and the stomach. It acts as a valve between the two organs.

Once food enters the stomach, the LES closes to prevent reflux or regurgitation of food into the esophagus. A weakened LES fails to close tightly, allowing food particles and acids to flow backward into your esophagus. This is called acid reflux and heartburn is a symptom of it.

The LES can become weak for many reasons, including structural abnormalities such as a hiatal hernia, or from medications you take, specific foods you eat, and lifestyle choices you make, such as smoking and drinking alcohol. Pressure on the abdomen from pregnancy or obesity may also weaken the LES.


The most common and obvious symptom of heartburn stems from its name: a burning sensation in the chest, behind your sternum. However, the burning sensation isn’t restricted to the chest—it can begin in the stomach and radiate up through the throat in some people. Other symptoms of acid reflux that may accompany heartburn are:

  • sharp chest pains
  • coughing and feeling the need to clear your throat
  • sensation of food stuck in your throat
  • trouble swallowing (dysphagia)
  • frequent burping

Do I Have Heartburn?

If you’ve never experienced heartburn before, you may become alarmed and think that the pain is cardiac-related. Consider your diet and the timing of your discomfort to determine if you’re suffering from heartburn. Seek immediate medical attention for any chest pain that is prolonged, severe, and makes you anxious. Ask yourself the following questions to determine if heartburn is the culprit:

  • What type of chest pain do I have?
  • When did the burning start?
  • Can I make the pain stop by sitting or lying in a certain position?
  • What did I eat?

Burning pain that feels superficial rather than deep in the chest is more likely to be heartburn or another form of non-cardiac chest pain (NCCP). Cardiac pain is deep, heavy, and achy. Though both NCCP and cardiac chest pain can radiate into the neck, back, and arms, heartburn usually stays close to the breastbone and throat.

Pinpointing the time when your discomfort started is helpful in determining whether or not heartburn is the cause. Nighttime heartburn is common in many adults. You’re also more likely to have heartburn after a meal than on an empty stomach. Bending over and lying down can make heartburn worse, but won’t affect cardiac pain.

Controlling Your Triggers

Diet plays a major role in the occurrence of heartburn. Because certain foods and substances can cause the LES to weaken, your risk of developing heartburn increases after eating particular items. Common heartburn triggers include:

  • chocolate
  • peppermint
  • tomato products
  • citrus fruits and juices
  • onions and garlic
  • greasy, fried, or fatty foods
  • caffeinated and alcoholic beverages
  • large meals of any kind

Keeping a food journal can help you recognize a pattern. Take note of any correlations between your heartburn and the foods you ate. Once you have established a connection between your eating and lifestyle habits, you can make changes to make yourself more comfortable.