Release Date: 12/30/2011
Heartburn causes burning sensation – but not in your heart
Dr. David A. Miller, a family medicine specialist, is a member of St. Anthony's Physician Organization. He practices at Kirkwood Family Medicine.
It’s not cardiac-related or fire-related – it just makes you feel like your heart’s on fire.
Heartburn is experienced by one in 10 Americans at least once a week. And for those who use the holiday season as an excuse to overindulge in too many treats, those figures may increase dramatically.
Heartburn begins as a burning sensation deep inside your chest, just behind your breastbone, then radiates up toward your throat. Sometimes it feels like food is coming back into your mouth, leaving a bitter taste. The pain often is worse when you are lying down or bending over. It can last for a few minutes or a few hours.
Technically, heartburn is the symptom you feel when acid splashes up and out of the stomach. It sometimes is called “acid reflux.” Normally, when you swallow, the muscle band around your lower esophagus (lower esophageal sphincter) relaxes to allow food and liquid to flow down into your stomach; then it closes again. But, if that band of muscles relaxes abnormally or weakens, stomach acid can flow back into the esophagus, causing heartburn.
Heartburn frequently occurs after eating a big meal, but can be triggered by eating certain foods. Some of the main offenders include: pepper, chocolate, coffee, fatty or fried food, ketchup, mustard, onions, orange juice, citrus fruits, peppermint, soft drinks, tomato sauce and vinegar. Smoking, alcohol and some medications, including aspirin and ibuprofen, are additional triggers. Obesity and even stress can contribute to the problem.
Occasional heartburn is common and no cause for alarm. In most cases, over-the-counter antacids will provide fast, temporary relief of occasional heartburn. Chronic heartburn, however, can inflame the lining of the esophagus, causing esophagitis or narrowing of the esophagus. This may cause difficulty swallowing and/or bleeding. Chronic heartburn also may be a symptom of acid reflux disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), gastritis, stomach ulcer or hiatal hernia.
Frequent heartburn that interferes with your daily routine may be a symptom of something more serious that requires help from a doctor. Make an appointment with your doctor if heartburn occurs more than twice a week, symptoms persist despite use of over-the-counter medications or you have difficulty swallowing. Seek immediate help if you experience severe chest pain, especially when combined with other signs and symptoms such as difficulty breathing or jaw or arm pain. Chest pain may be a symptom of a heart attack.
To prevent heartburn, you may need to change your lifestyle. Avoid dietary triggers, don’t overeat and lose weight if you’re overweight. Don’t go to bed with a full stomach, avoid lying down for at least two hours after eating and avoid tight clothing or belts. Raising the head of your bed on 4-to-6-inch blocks may provide relief of heartburn.
If your symptoms continue, see your doctor. Your doctor may prescribe medication and/or schedule you for diagnostic tests.
While heartburn has nothing to do with the heart, sometimes chest pain is mistaken for heartburn, when it actually is related to heart disease. If your chest pain is accompanied by shortness of breath, dizziness, sweating, vomiting or pain that radiates into your neck and shoulder, seek immediate medical help.
For information, please call our Health Access Line at 314-ANTHONY (268-4669) or 800-554-9550 or visit find a physician online.
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