Causes, symptoms, and treatments for Heartburn

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Occasional heartburn is normal and is rarely a significant cause for concern. Recurrent acid reflux results in the diagnosis of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD or GORD) and can have serious consequences for health and indicate other underlying health issues.

The symptoms of heartburn are fairly obvious to most sufferers. The most common is a feeling of warmth or heat, sometimes burning, in the chest and throat, caused by the stomach acid.

Other symptoms include:

  • Burning sensation in the middle of the chest.
  • Rising pain, possibly reaching the jaw.
  • Burning and indigestion-like pain.
  • Foul, acrid taste in the mouth.

If a person experiences symptoms of acid reflux frequently, they should consult their doctor, who may refer them to a gastroenterologist – a specialist in gut medicine – for further investigation. Learn more about GERD.

Lifestyle can play a large part in the development of acid reflux-related problems, and changes to lifestyle or behavior can prevent or improve symptoms.

The American Gastroenterological Association offers the following list of things that might help resolve symptoms:

  • Avoid food, drinks, and medicines that you find to be associated with heartburn irritation
  • Eat smaller meals
  • Improve posture – for instance, siting up straighter
  • Wear loose clothing
  • Do not lie down for 2-3 hours after a meal
  • Lose weight if overweight or obese
  • Avoid increased pressure on your abdomen, such as from tight belts or doing sit-up exercises
  • Stop smoking
  • Reduce intake of chocolate, carbonated drinks, and acidic juices

It is important to address persistent problems with gastroesophageal reflux disease as long-term untreated acid reflux can lead to serious complications, including an increased risk of cancer.

Long-term, continual exposure to stomach acid can damage the esophagus, leading to:

  • Esophagitis – the lining of the esophagus is inflamed, causing irritation, bleeding, and ulceration in some cases
    Strictures – damage caused by stomach acid leads to scar development and difficulties swallowing, with food getting stuck as it travels down the esophagus
  • Barrett’s esophagus – a serious complication where repeated exposure to stomach acid causes changes in the cells and tissues lining the esophagus with potential to develop into cancer cells

Both esophagitis and Barrett’s esophagus are associated with a higher risk of cancer. There was a landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1999 that found a link between untreated acid reflux and cancer. Its conclusion reads as a stark warning against leaving acid reflux untreated for a long time.

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