Heartburn is a painful condition involving the upper digestive system, not the heart itself. Because the pain often radiates from the central chest region, some sufferers confuse the symptoms of heartburn with a heart attack. The condition is actually the result of stomach acids reacting strongly to certain foods during digestion. A small amount of stomach acid is forced up the unprotected esophagus and the resultant chemical burn causes moderate to severe pain.
Under ordinary circumstances, the esophagus which leads from the mouth to the stomach should not be exposed to stomach acids. The stomach itself contains a layer of mucus which protects its lining from the powerful digestive juices. The esophagus has no such protection, but it does have a sphincter muscle near the stomach which should work as a one-way valve. If this sphincter becomes weak or overwhelmed, stomach contents can be forced back up the esophagus and cause burns. This condition is called GERD, short for Gastroesophageal reflux disease.
Even if a sufferer does not have GERD, he or she may have a temporary condition called acid reflux. The stomach can be overwhelmed by excessive amounts of food or foods which are heavily spiced. The result is a churning sensation followed by a sudden urge to vomit. The entire esophagus from the vocal cords to the stomach may be affected by pain and severe heartburn incidents can lead to excruciating localized pain and difficulty speaking.
The most common treatment for heartburn is the immediate consumption of antacid tablets. Since excessive acid production is the root cause of the condition, these tablets contain a 'base' of calcium and carbonates. Chemically, an acid becomes neutralized when combined with a base. The excess acid essentially becomes water when antacid tablets reach the stomach. Effervescent tablets such as Alka-Seltzer work in much the same way, although the additional gas bubbles help to eliminate trapped air and pain medications treat other symptoms.
More recent advances have resulted in new prescription and over-the-counter acid reducing drugs. Sufferers can now take a small pill before ingesting troublesome foods. These medications such as Prilosec and Tagamet target the acid-producing mechanism of the stomach itself. If less acid is produced during digestion, then less acid will reach the esophagus should an acid reflux incident occur. This should reduce the intensity and the frequency of pain.
It is important to understand the difference between severe heartburn pain and a true heart attack or angina. Heartburn pain is localized in the central chest, while heart attack pain can radiate through the back and down an arm. Heartburn sufferers often report a series of sharp chest pains, while many heart attack victims usually feel more of a dull heaviness. When in doubt, it's always a good idea to visit the closest emergency room. It's better to be sent home with a prescription for antacids than to self-diagnose cardiac pains as indigestion.