A little heartburn once in a while is completely normal, but there is a line between heartburn that is simply part of the human condition and heartburn that is a serious health problem.
Food and liquid are able to flow down a tube between the mouth and the stomach known as the esophagus because a muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter relaxes during swallowing, then tightens again once the material has passed, according to the Mayo Clinic. When that muscle weakens or performs abnormally, stomach acid can back up into the esophagus — which is called acid reflux — and cause heartburn. “The acid backup may be worse when you're bent over or lying down,” the organization explains.
Many people occasionally get a burning sensation in their chest after eating. It’s not a problem, assuming what you are experiencing is actually heartburn and not a heart attack, as sometimes people confuse the two. It’s when the heartburn happens more than a couple of times a week or when it starts to interfere with daily life that it should cause concern. It’s also important to see a doctor, the Mayo Clinic says, when over-the-counter medications do not relieve the heartburn or when it causes difficulty swallowing, nausea or weight loss stemming from a decreased appetite or trouble eating.
In some cases, frequent heartburn can be a sign that something bigger is wrong, such as stomach or esophageal cancer. But it can also be linked to gastroesophageal reflux disease, commonly known as GERD, which comes when the stomach acid that has backed up irritates the esophagus’ lining. It is a common condition: Live Science estimates it affects 14 to 20 percent of U.S. adults.
There are medications to treat typical heartburn, but at least one doctor has spoken against that route. Gastroenterologist Michael P. Jones wrote in an opinion for the L.A. Times that heartburn is a sign that “you’re operating outside your body’s specifications: Please stop doing that.” It can be an early warning of other conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease, he wrote.
“Today's heartburn after six slices of pizza is tomorrow's crushing chest pain when you go face down in the meatballs.” Instead of alleviating heartburn with pills, he recommended modifying behavior in response to heartburn, with the goal of making healthier choices. “Heartburn is your friend,” he said, “a harbinger of morbid and mortal events to come.”
Live Science says if GERD is not treated, “the frequent exposure of stomach acid may scar the esophagus and make it difficult to swallow or erode an open sore in the esophageal lining.”
Further reading: The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases