What Is Heartburn?

by Tracy Davenport, Ph.D. Health Writer

What is Heartburn?

When someone experiences heartburn, he or she usually experiences it as a burning sensation in the chest or in the upper abdomen. The pain is a common complaint of many and affects approximately 7 to 10 percent of the U.S. population every day (Kern et al., 2004). Heartburn is usually associated with regurgitation of gastric acid from the stomach and is usually a chief complaint of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Unfortunately, the simplicity of the definition stops there. Because while everyone has regurgitation of gastric acid from the stomach, not everyone has heartburn and not everyone who does have heartburn has acid reflux disease.

The difference between heartburn and GERD is that GERD is a condition that develops when the reflux of stomach contents causes troublesome symptoms and/or complications (Vakil et al., 2006). What muddies the waters even more, is that less than half of the naturally occurring reflux events is reported as heartburn by patients and there is not really agreement among those with heartburn in the perception and description of symptoms caused by reflux events.

In other words, some patients with GERD describe the classic burning sensation in the chest (heartburn), while others describe pressure, pain, discomfort, or even a vague sensation that just feels unusual following a reflux episode. Unexplained night awakenings can also be a hallmark of the disease. There is also a range of syndromes associated with heartburn or GERD and the result can range from just feeling uncomfortable to having a chronic cough to asthma to Barrett's esophagus.

As you can tell, while heartburn sounds very simple, it can be quite complicated and can feel differently to different people. Next week I will be interviewing a child with acid reflux disease to better explain how these symptoms can feel from a child's perspective.


Kern, Hofmann, Hyde and Shaker reported in the American Journal of Physiology (2004)

Vakil et al., reported in the American Journal of Gastroenterology (2006).

Tracy Davenport, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Tracy Davenport, Ph.D.

Davenport is the founder of Tracyshealthyliving.com. Using the latest scientific research, she helps people live their healthiest lives via one-on-one coaching, corporate talks, and sharing the more than 1,000 health-related articles she's authored.