Heartburn. It’s a term that’s become commonplace in modern America. You’ll see it plastered on antacid billboards, see it over-dramatically acted out in TV commercials, hear it joked about, whined about, or earnestly cried about by friends, family, and even strangers. Over the years, heartburn has become a very present and unpleasant aspect of many American’s daily lives.
The sad thing about heartburn is that, because of its prevalence, many of us simply write it off as a nuisance that has to be suffered. We treat it like it’s a normal part of our everyday lives, when in reality heartburn isn’t at all “normal” to experience. We get so caught up griping about how heartburn feels that we forget to take a moment and determine why it’s happening, then follow that up with the question “how can I make it stop?”
Although it’s not abnormal to experience occasional situational heartburn, such as a bit of heartburn after eating a massive meal on Thanksgiving, if you’re experiencing heartburn 2-3 times a week then there’s something more serious going on behind the scenes.
If you suffer from heartburn and acid reflux, then you’re probably all too familiar with its list of accompanying symptoms, the most common of which is the burning feeling in the chest just behind the breastbone. Some other symptoms include chest pain, burning in the throat, a sour or acidic taste in the back of the throat, difficulty swallowing, chronic cough, sore throat, or hoarseness of voice.
Anatomical Heartburn Causes
The sensation of heartburn is the burning feeling associated with the presence of stomach acid or bile in the esophagus. Heartburn is typically caused by GERD, and in order to understand GERD one must understand the Lower Esophageal Sphincter, or LES. The LES is a muscle that acts as a valve and barrier in between the stomach and the esophagus. A normal functioning LES opens when a person swallows and allows food to pass from the throat in to the stomach before shutting tightly. A weak or malfunctioning LES will either not shut completely or will open at the wrong time and allow stomach acid to come up into the esophagus.
Stomach acid is a necessary part of the digestive process, however it is not meant to be in the esophagus. The stomach lining typically has a mucosal barrier that protects itself from being corroded by the acid, but the esophagus does not. Without this protective layer, the esophagus can be damaged or eroded by the presence of acid, and this can lead to long-term problems. For this reason, the LES is an extremely valuable muscle in the digestive tract, and it is very important that it functions properly.
Diet is perhaps the most common heartburn trigger. It is different for each person, but common foods that cause heartburn are coffee, spicy or greasy food, citrus fruits, marinara and other red sauces, alcohol, chocolate, and peppermint. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but these are potential triggers.
Exercise and posture can be triggers, too. Abdominal exercises such as sit-ups may increase pressure in the abdomen and activate heartburn. It is important to not exercise on a full stomach. Some yoga positions, jogging, and lying down can cause contents of the stomach to rise into the esophagus and stimulate heartburn.
Complications of Heartburn/GERD
If heartburn and GERD go untreated for a long period of time then potentially serious complications can arise, the most common of which are:
- Esophagitis: Esophagitis is inflammation or irritation of the esophagus.
- Pneumonia- Pneumonia is a lung infection with very unpleasant symptoms. It can be very serious
- Barrett’s Esophagus: This is a type of esophageal damage that is considered pre-cancerous.
- Stricture: Stricture is best described as a narrowing of the esophagus, and it can cause problems with swallowing and digestion.
The occasional situational heartburn is nothing to worry about, but if you notice that your heartburn is chronic (occurring 2-3 times a week) then it is highly likely that it’s the result of an underlying more serious condition like GERD. Leaving any condition untreated is never safe, and it’s important to discuss your heartburn issues with a reflux specialist to determine what may be causing them and find the appropriate treatment. You can visit the Tampa Bay Reflux Center to discuss diagnosis, testing, and treatment of GERD and other related conditions.