Overview and Facts
Heartburn is such a common occurrence that occurs daily for about 10% of Americans. Heartburn is a painful, burning feeling in the lower chest, and it can be accompanied by a sour or bitter taste in the mouth and throat. The actual heartburn feeling happens when stomach acid backs up into your esophagus. Heartburn has many triggers including food, pregnancy, medications, alcohol and even stress. If you experience heartburn symptoms, which are also sometimes called acid reflux symptoms, more than twice a week, you may have acid reflux disease. Acid reflux disease is also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD disease.
Signs and Symptoms
In general, heartburn is one of the common acid reflux symptoms. However, not everyone with acid reflux disease will have heartburn. Heartburn symptoms can differ from person to person, but overall, these are the most common heartburn symptoms:
- Burning pain in the chest
- Pain that comes after meals
- Difficulty swallowing
- Sour or bitter taste
- Feeling of food stuck
Often times, people experiencing severe chest pain may go to the hospital thinking they are having a heart attack. But it is possible they are suffering from an episode of severe heartburn. If any heartburn symptoms occur with some of the symptoms below, it is possible that it is a heart attack:
- Feeling of fullness and tightness in center of chest
- Very sudden chest pain and pressure
- Dizziness and difficulty breathing
- Cold sweat and lightheadedness
- Pain that spreads to shoulders, neck, jaw or arms
Causes and Diagnosis
The burning sensation experienced with heartburn is caused when stomach acid gets backed up in the esophagus. In a sense, the stomach juices ‘reflux,’ or flow backwards, which happens when the valve that typically keeps stomach acid in the stomach, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), relaxes or weakens and does not function correctly. This allows stomach acid into the esophagus, which is referred to as a gastroesophageal reflux.
Heartburn and diet are closely related, as one of the most common heartburn causes is food. Certain foods, especially those high in acidity, tend to cause it in some people:
- Cottage cheese
- Orange juice
- Black pepper
- Fatty foods
- Alcohol (liquor and wine)
- Fried foods
- Tomato sauce
Describing your acid reflux or heartburn symptoms to a doctor may be all that is necessary to diagnose heartburn.If the heartburn symptoms are unclear, your doctor may perform a 24-hour esophageal pH probe study. This test inserts a long, narrow tube through the nose into the esophagus and a probe is left there for 24 hours. This probe detects acid levels to determine if it correlates with the symptoms you believe to be heartburn symptoms.
Tests and Treatment Options
Heartburn treatment typically involves antacids. Many over-the-counter antacids can provide heartburn relief, and occasionally a doctor may recommend long-term prescription antacids. Antacids are commonly used to treat indigestion or provide heartburn and acid reflux relief. They work by reducing the stomach acidity.
If antacids don’t provide the necessary heartburn relief, your doctor may recommend an over-the-counter heartburn drug such as Zantac 75, Pepcid AC or Axid AR.
Occasionally, if antacids and other heartburn drugs do not work, surgery may be required to repair the lower esophageal sphincter.
Helpful Tips and Home Remedies
Many Americans experience heartburn, but there are things people can do to avoid heartburn symptoms, such as:
- Avoid foods that trigger heartburn – each person has different reactions to foods, so avoid those you know will trigger your heartburn
- Quit smoking – smoking decreases the ability of the lower esophageal sphincter’s ability to function properly
- Maintain a healthy weight – excess weight can put pressure on your abdomen and causing acid to back up into your esophagus
- Eat smaller meals – this helps to avoid overeating
- Don’t lay down after a meal – bending over or lying down can trigger heartburn symptoms
- Avoid tightfitting clothing – when clothes are tight around your waist, it can put pressure on your abdomen
Anxiety and stress have also been known to worsen heartburn symptoms. If you have high stress that is contributing to heartburn, consider trying aromatherapy, relaxation techniques, listening to calming music, massage or hypnosis.