Heartburn is a well-known symptom of a condition called gastroesophageal reflux or acid reflux. A muscle known as the lower esophageal sphincter opens up during swallowing to allow food to pass into the stomach. This muscle quickly closes to help prevent the return or “reflux” of food and stomach juices back into the esophagus. Gastroesophageal reflux causes this muscle to relax or become weak. Because it is slower to close up, stomach juices and acid are able to come back up causing “heartburn” or a persistent soar throat, chronic cough and a heart-like chest pain. These symptoms are sometimes accompanied by a bitter acid taste in the mouth.
Is Heartburn Caused by Hiatal Hernia?
Hiatal hernia is a common condition that occurs when the stomach partially sits up in the chest cavity because of a weakness in the diaphragm. Although persistent hiatal hernia can produce significant heartburn, most people who experience heartburn do not have hiatal hernia.
Is Heartburn Serious?
Heartburn in general is usually not a serious condition since heartburn and reflux are very common issues. In fact, 10 percent of the population experiences these symptoms at least once a week. 25 percent of pregnant women have heartburn or experience related symptoms. Frequent or severe heartburn can limit daily activities and productivity and may lead to further complications. However, it typically is not life-threatening and most people are able to find relief.
However, long-term acid reflux can result in serious complications. Esophagitis is the inflammation of the esophagus that can lead to ulcers and esophageal bleeding when stomach acid touches the esophagus. This can also interfere with a person’s ability to swallow. Some people can develop Barrett’s esophagus, a change in the cells of the tissue lining the bottom of the esophagus that increases the chance of getting cancer. Reflux can also impact the lungs by causing stomach fluid to overflow into the breathing tubes. This typically occurs at night when a person is lying down, leading to pneumonia or bronchitis.
Diagnosis of Acid Reflux
Doctors can typically diagnose acid reflux after hearing what type of symptoms you have. However, there are various tests that can also be used to ascertain the condition:
- Upper GI Endoscopy
- Upper GI Series
- Esophageal Manometry
- 24 Hour pH Monitoring
Tips to Control Heartburn (Reflux)
- Avoid lying down right after eating and within two to three hours of bedtime.
- Elevate the head of the bed four to six inches.
- Lose weight if overweight.
- Stop smoking.
- Avoid eating large meals. Instead, eat smaller, more frequent meals.
- Coffee and alcohol
- Mint products (i.e., peppermint, spearmint)
- Carbonated beverages, and citrus fruits or juices
- Tomato sauce, ketchup, mustard and vinegar
- Aspirin and most pain medicines (other than acetaminophen).