Demystifying Heartburn: What Heartburn Feels Like and Its Symptoms ExplainedPublished on Wednesday, November 08, 2023 by
Inside Heartburn: A Close Look at the Sensation and Symptoms
Is this heartburn? If you know, you know…but what if you’ve never experienced it before?
As someone who started experiencing heartburn in my 20s, I’m now very familiar with the telltale signs of an imminent, full-blown “burn” (and even the slight hint of heartburn). But I realize that there are lots of people who are curious about what it actually feels like. You might also be wondering if what you’re experiencing is actually heartburn or something else. So, let’s dig into the physical sensations and help you answer the “What does it feel like?” question for yourself.
Chances are, if you think you’re experiencing heartburn, you’ve probably consulted “Dr. Google” about it. And in that case, a “what does heartburn feel like?” query will net you about 38,000,000 results—almost all of which include the phrase “uncomfortable burning sensation.” While that’s not the most helpful description, it’s pretty accurate for most people.
Despite the name “heartburn,” the burning feeling is not located around the heart. Instead, the characteristic pain of heartburn is typically felt just below the ribcage, at the base of the sternum. The pain can be mild and dull or intense and sharp. It can also feel mild initially but become strong shortly afterward (especially if you lie down, recline, or bend over).
Some individuals don’t experience heartburn as a “burning” sensation. People describe it in other ways, including:
- a dull ache in my chest
- feeling like my food is coming back up
- having to clear my throat a lot
- a sour taste in my throat/back of the mouth
More Physical Symptoms Associated With Heartburn
Sometimes, heartburn pain comes with other symptoms, which can be useful in helping you determine if you’re actually experiencing heartburn or something else. These additional symptoms may include:
- feeling very full or bloated (usually after eating)
- “sour stomach” or indigestion
- regurgitation of food
What Causes “Burn” From Heartburn?
The gastrointestinal tract is made to handle food going one way—down. When you eat, the food heads down from the throat to the stomach via the esophagus. Once in the stomach, the food is mixed with a strong acid and other liquids that help break the food down. The stomach itself is protected from the acid, but the esophagus is not. So if that acidic mixture comes back up (a condition known as acid reflux), the sensitive lining of the esophagus becomes irritated, causing a burning sensation. Acid reflux and heartburn can also occur in the absence of food and even after drinking a lot of water.
Is It Heartburn Or A Heart Attack?
If you’ve never had heartburn, you may feel anxious about what you’re feeling in your chest, which is understandable! Some people confuse the sensations of heartburn with symptoms of a heart attack. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), chest pain is the most common symptom of a heart attack for both men and women.
One of the quickest ways to differentiate between heart attack and heartburn is by taking an antacid. Antacids have a good safety record and act quickly. If the antacid relieves your chest pain, it is most likely heartburn.
However, the AHA advises that if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms listed below, do not put off seeking medical attention and call 911 right away:
- Discomfort is characterized by pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain at the center of the chest (these last more than a few minutes or may come and go).
- Pain or discomfort extending to either one or both arms, the back, shoulders, neck, jaw, or stomach.
- Shortness of breath, whether accompanied by discomfort or not.
- Nausea, sudden perspiration (cold sweat), or a feeling of lightheadedness.
Another way to help you distinguish between heartburn and a heart attack is the timing of the chest pain. The pain of a heart attack comes on suddenly but isn’t associated with eating, while heartburn most frequently occurs shortly after a meal.
Other Conditions That May Be Confused With Heartburn
Chest pain is a reasonably general symptom that can be caused by several other health conditions, such as anxiety or panic disorder (having a panic attack), pulmonary embolism (a blood clot that has moved to the blood vessels of the lungs), or pneumonia, to name a few. If you are ever the slightest bit unsure about whether you’re experiencing chest pain from heartburn or something else, call your doctor or 911.
- Heartburn or heart attack? (2022, June). American Heart Association. Retrieved Oct. 18, 2023 from https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/angina-chest-pain/heartburn-or-heart-attack
- Garg, V., Narang, P., & Taneja, R. (2022). Antacids revisited: review on contemporary facts and relevance for self-management. The Journal of international medical research, 50(3), 3000605221086457. https://doi.org/10.1177/03000605221086457
- Huffman, J. C., Pollack, M. H., & Stern, T. A. (2002). Panic Disorder and Chest Pain: Mechanisms, Morbidity, and Management. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 4(2), 54–62. https://doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v04n0203
- MedlinePlus (2022, July 31). National Library of Medicine. Community-acquired pneumonia in adults. Retrieved Oct. 19, 2023 from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000145.htm
Kitty BroihierMS, RD, LD