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Overview and Facts

Despite its name, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. Approximately ten per cent of the population deals with heartburn from time to time. Simply put, heartburn is a feeling of pain or burning in the lower chest, sometimes extending to the back, neck, or throat. It is the result of acid from the stomach getting into the esophagus. Sometimes it is called reflux or acid reflux disease. It is important to find the cause of heartburn and to treat it appropriately. While suffering from heartburn occasionally is very common, chronic heartburn can lead to serious medical complications, and it is important to get it under control.

Signs and Symptoms

The characteristic burning feeling in the chest or throat, often accompanied by a bitter or sour taste in the mouth are common heartburn symptoms. Heartburn and indigestion have a lot in common, but the pain of indigestion is typically a bit lower, in the upper abdomen rather than the lower chest. Another classic sign of indigestion is feeling overly full shortly after beginning to eat a meal, or the inability to finish a sensibly sized meal. Heartburn symptoms are caused by a wider variety of triggers than indigestion. Heartburn can cause cough, sore throat, and difficulty swallowing. Bending or lying down while full can cause a pain in the chest that is a sign of heartburn.

Causes and Diagnosis

Heartburn is caused when acid from the stomach erupts up into the esophagus. Heartburn causes include pregnancy, certain foods, like coffee, chocolate, peppermint, onions, and spicy food, just to name a few, smoking, lying down while full, wearing clothing that is tight at the waist, some medications, and even stress. Some sufferers of chronic heartburn have it because the opening between the esophagus and stomach does not close all the way. Intestinal motility problems can also cause heartburn or indigestion. Yet, another cause is a hiatal hernia, which is where part of the stomach pokes through the diaphragm wall. While occasional heartburn can be alleviated with over-the-counter medication, chronic heartburn needs to be diagnosed and treated or it can cause more lasting and devastating damage, including cancer.

Tests and Treatments

It is important to see a doctor for chronic heartburn. The doctor will perform tests which may include x-rays to check for ulcers, a pH test to look for acid in the esophagus, or endoscopy to see exactly what is going on. A long, flexible tube is inserted down the esophagus with a camera on the end, so that the doctor can see the damage that has already occurred, and what may be the direct cause. The treatment may range from over-the-counter medication to prescription medication to surgery. Medications on the market for heartburn relief either block the acid that is produced by the stomach (antacids), or control the amount of acid the stomach produces in the first place.

Tips and Home Remedies

For the most common sufferer, lifestyle changes are going to bring about the most significant heartburn relief. A good place to start is to keep a journal of foods and other triggers, and when heartburn symptoms strike. Don’t eat within three hours of going to bed, and use six to eight inch blocks to raise the head of the bed to avoid lying flat. Do not smoke and avoid alcohol. Lose weight and avoid overeating. Stick to a high-protein, low-fat diet. Avoid tight clothes and belts. Learn to manage stress in a healthy way. Exercise regularly, and make stretching part of that routine.
One important note to make when dealing with heartburn and indigestion is this: signs of a heart attack are often mistaken for indigestion or heartburn. If there is tightness in the chest, especially if it radiates down the arms, dizziness, shortness of breath, or any of the other classic heart attack symptoms, take them seriously and get to the doctor.

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