Heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. Rather, it involves the esophagus (the tube that connects the throat to the stomach), and the stomach itself. The esophagus passes behind the breastbone alongside the heart, so the inflammation or irritation that takes place there feels like a burning sensation in the heart.

What causes this irritation? Gastric acids from the stomach splash back up into the lower portion of the esophagus, causing pain. The digestive acids don’t harm the stomach, thanks to its protective coating, but the esophagus has no such armor which results in discomfort. The most common heartburn triggers are:

  • Taking aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, arthritis medicine, or cortisone.
  • Eating heavy meals or eating rapidly.
  • Eating foods like chocolate, garlic, onions, peppermint, tomatoes or citrus fruits.
  • Lying down after a meal.
  • Smoking after eating.
  • Drinking coffee (regular or decaffeinated).
  • Drinking alcohol.
  • Being very overweight.
  • Wearing tight clothing.
  • Pregnancy.
  • Swallowing too much air.
  • Stress.
  • A weakened or malfunctioning valve between the esophagus and the stomach.
  • A bulging of the upper part of the stomach through the diaphragm. This is called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). It was commonly termed hiatal hernia.

Self-Care Tips

Treatment consists of avoiding as many contributing factors as possible, plus the following:

  • Sit straight, and stand up or walk around whenever you can. Bending over or lying down after eating makes it too easy for gastric secretions to move up to the esophagus.
  • If heartburn bothers you at night, raise the head of the bed slightly. (Example: Put the head of your bed up on 6 inch blocks, or buy a wedge especially made for putting between the mattress and box spring).
  • Lose weight if you are overweight.
  • Avoid wearing tight-fitting garments around the abdomen. (Example: Girdle).
  • Eat small meals. Limit alcohol.
  • Limit foods and drinks that contain air. (Example: Baked goods, waffles, whipped cream, carbonated beverages).
  • Don’t drink through straws or bottles with narrow mouths.
  • Don’t eat for 2 to 3 hours before bedtime.
  • If other treatments fail:

    • Take an antacid. They coat your stomach and neutralize acids. For example, take 1 to 2 tablespoons of a non-absorbable liquid antacid such as magnesium hydroxide every 2 to 4 hours or ones that come in tablet form such as Tums.
    • If antacids don’t bring relief take an over-the- counter acid controller, (examples – Pepcid AC and Tagamet HB.) These not only relieve heartburn but can prevent it. [Note: Read label before taking antacids or acid controllers. If you have questions check with your doctor.]

  • Don’t take baking soda. It may neutralize stomach acid at first, but when its effects wear off, the acid comes back to a greater degree causing severe gastric acid rebound.
  • Don’t smoke. It promotes heartburn.
  • If you do take aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, or arthritis medicines, take them with food.

    [Note: Call your doctor if you find no relief from self-care tips.]

    Questions to Ask

    Do you have any of the following?

    • A tightness in your chest which radiates to the neck, jaw or arm
    • Sweating or shortness of breath
    • Nausea
    • Discomfort that gets worse with exertion

    Yes: Seek Emergency Care


    Are you vomiting black or red-colored material?

    Yes: Seek Emergency Care


    Are your stools tar-like and black in color?

    Yes: See Doctor


    Do you also have pain that goes through to your back or a gripping pain in the upper abdomen?

    Yes: See Doctor


    Are you having a hard time swallowing?
    Yes: Call Doctor

    Has the heartburn occurred often over 3 days?
    Yes: Call Doctor

    Provide Self-Care

    Healthy Self: The Guide to Self-Care and Wise Consumerism

    © American Institute for Preventive Medicine

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Written by American Institute for Preventive Medicine

Explore Wellness in 2021