What Does Heartburn Feel Like? How to Know What You’re Really Feeling

How does heartburn differ from GERD, indigestion, dyspepsia, and gastritis—and what does heartburn feel like?

what does heartburn feel like

That burning, irritating sensation in your chest: What's behind it? Our author answers the question "What does heartburn feel like?" while offering tips on how to determine whether that's actually what's causing your discomfort.

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“Heartburn” is not a medical term, but it is one of the most commonly used words to describe symptoms of the upper gastrointestinal tract. An estimated 20 to 40 percent of adults report having chronic heartburn.[1] With this many people regularly suffering, you would think most people would be able to answer, “What does heartburn feel like?” But many people are confused about what heartburn feels like and how it differs from indigestion, reflux, and other common stomach-related symptoms and medical conditions.

Some of my patients have incorrectly named what they’re experiencing as heartburn, when, in fact, their symptoms were something else. Knowing what heartburn feels like is important, since both heartburn itself and symptoms that might be mistaken for heartburn can be signs of a serious health problem.

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So What Does Heartburn Feel Like?

Heartburn, sometimes called acid reflux or acid indigestion, most often feels like pain or burning in the middle of the chest (behind the breast bone). The pain may also be located in the upper abdomen or rise up to the throat or neck. The discomfort is worse after meals, in a reclining position, or when bending over.

What-Does-Heartburn-Feel-Like

Heartburn is caused by relaxation of the valve that separates the lower esophagus from the stomach—the lower esophageal sphincter—which allows stomach contents to enter and irritate the esophagus. For this reason, heartburn is often associated with regurgitation, an acid or bitter taste in the mouth caused by food or liquid coming back up into your mouth from the stomach.

Heartburn is the most common cause of chest pain, accounting for approximately 50 percent of cases. The chest pain of heartburn can be so severe that patients mistakenly think they are having a heart attack. Sometimes, sophisticated testing is needed to determine if the chest pain is due to heartburn or to a heart attack or heart condition.

How Does Heartburn Relate to GERD, Indigestion, Dyspepsia, and Gastritis?

Indigestion is another non-medical term used to describe a variety of different symptoms, including heartburn and regurgitation, related to the upper gastrointestinal tract. In addition to heartburn and regurgitation, the term indigestion is often used to describe stomach-related pain or discomfort, which is also referred to as dyspepsia.

Dyspepsia may describe range of symptoms, which may include:

  • Upper abdominal pain, burning, or discomfort
  • Fullness after eating/early satiety
  • Nausea after eating
  • Retching and/or vomiting
  • Heartburn
  • Belching
  • Stomach bloating

Gastritis is the medical term for inflammation of the stomach. It is characterized by pain in the upper abdomen and other dyspepsia symptoms. Gastritis is most commonly caused by infection with Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria that also causes ulcers; medications, especially aspirin and anti-inflammatory drugs; and alcohol.

Gastro esophageal reflux disease (GERD) develops when chronic reflux of stomach contents causes troublesome symptoms (like heartburn and regurgitation) and/or complications (like cancer of the esophagus).[3] Heartburn is the most common symptom of GERD, but not everyone with GERD has heartburn.[2] Along with heartburn and regurgitation, people with GERD may experience symptoms of dyspepsia such as stomach pain, nausea, bloating, and belching. Difficulty swallowing occurs in approximately one-third of GERD patients and is associated with a sensation that food is stuck, particularly in the area behind the breastbone.

Other symptoms of GERD include those related to the respiratory system: chronic cough and asthma/wheezing result from the aspiration of stomach contents into the bronchi and lungs. About half of patients with asthma caused by GERD do not experience heartburn.[4] Hoarseness, often experienced by GERD patients in the morning, results from irritation of the vocal cords by refluxed stomach contents. Laryngitis and dental erosions can also be symptoms of GERD if the stomach contents go all the way up into the throat the back of the mouth.

What to Do If You Have Frequent Heartburn

If you suffer from more-than-occasional heartburn or indigestion, it is important that you seek attention from a health care professional as soon as possible. These may be symptoms of a serious medical condition like a heart attack, ulcer, or gallbladder disease. Furthermore, the symptoms may be a sign of damage to the esophagus which can lead to scarring and narrowing of the esophagus or to abnormal cell growth, increasing the risk of cancer.

Please share what has helped your heartburn in the comments section below.


[1] Dig Dis Sci. 2014 Oct; 59(10): 2488–2496.

[2] Medscape. GERD Clinical Presentation.

[3] World J Gastroenterol. 2014 Sep 14; 20(34): 12277–12282.

[4] World J Gastrointest Pharmacol Ther. 2014 Aug 6; 5(3): 105–112.

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Comments
  • Julie L.

    The information is very helpful I have been suffering with all those symptoms and did not know what was the problem. I will look further into getting the right treatment. Thank you

  • Sylvia H.

    After taking Nexium for seven years, as prescribed by my gastroenterologist, I was told I had developed osteoporosis as a result. At that point my doctor wanted me to take shots for the osteoporosis. I declined after researching the side effects. I have since been taking Pepcid and increasing bone strengthening exercises. I no longer seem to have any symptoms of GERD and my bone scan shows improvement in my bone density. Lesson learned: Don’t take drugs which physicians are ever so quick to prescribe before doing extensive research and deciding for yourself. The “medicine” all too often does much more harm than good.

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