Heartburn affects millions of people around the world. Occasional heartburn is not cause for alarm but frequent heartburn could be a symptom of a more serious problem and should be evaluated by your physician.
What exactly is Heartburn?
Heartburn is the term used to describe the burning sensation felt in your chest behind your breastbone due to gastric acid irritation. The burning sensation can be located anywhere between this point and up to your throat. Described most commonly as a burn, it can also present as a sharp pain. The discomfort of heartburn is often made worse when lying down or bending over forward.
What causes Heartburn?
When you swallow your food and it passes through the esophagus and into the stomach a circular band of muscle around the lower part of your esophagus called your lower esophageal sphincter relaxes allowing what you eat or drink to flow into the stomach and then the sphincter closes again. If this sphincter becomes weak or malfunctions and does not close properly, stomach acid can flow back into the esophagus. When stomach acid flows up from your stomach and into the esophagus you feel the burn associated with heartburn. If the sphincter does not close correctly, bending forward or lying down increases the backflow of this acid, increasing your discomfort.
Risks, Treatment and Complications of Heartburn
If you consume certain foods you could increase your risk for heartburn. Some foods associated with heartburn are alcohol, black pepper, coffee, chocolate, fried and fatty foods, tomatoes and tomato based products, acidic juices such as orange juice and soft drinks, peppermint and vinegar. Other foods may increase your risk for heartburn as well and this list is not all inclusive.
Occasional mild heartburn can usually be managed with over the counter medications or diet changes to avoid foods that trigger your heartburn. If your heartburn is no longer controlled by these methods and occurring more frequently you should see your doctor to determine if your heartburn is a symptom of a more serious illness and to seek medical management of your symptoms.
Frequent heartburn which interferes with your daily routine is known as GERD (gastrointestinal esophageal reflux disease). This condition can lead to serious complications if left untreated. Treatment for GERD can include prescriptions strength antacid medications and at times it can require surgical or procedural interventions. GERD can lead to irritation of the tissues of the esophagus, scarring and strictures, bleeding in the esophagus and other serious complications.