Every human being has at some point in his or her life has experienced heartburn. In fact, the sale of over-the-counter (OTC) heartburn medication goes up during the holiday season when people are congregating around family tables all across America. This discomfort commonly associated with a burning sensation in the chest is a form of indigestion caused by regurgitation of your stomach’s acid back into your esophagus. These acids are present in the stomach to aid in the breaking down of food for easier absorption by the small intestine.
While this back flow of stomach contents may occur occasionally with no adverse effects, if the acid is present in large amounts, it causes irritation to the esophagus. A healthy stomach is equipped with lining to withstand these acids but the esophagus is not, hence the feeling of heartburn. The first documented case of heartburn treatment dates back to the first century and today over 25 million adults are affected by heartburn on a daily basis. In many cases, it goes away without any intervention but sometimes you must take some medicine to clear the irritation.
The most common symptom of heartburn is a burning sensation in the chest behind the breastbone. This is often experienced after eating and may last from a few moments to several hours or days if left unattended. Over 94 percent of people claim to experience heartburn after ingesting certain meals. A burning sensation at the back of the throat sometimes accompanies these pains. Others have complained of feeling chest pains when lying down or when exercising.
Less common symptoms include difficulty swallowing and a feeling of food being stuck in the throat or chest. If chronic coughing, nausea and vomiting accompany these symptoms, acid reflux may be to blame and you must seek medical attention. Heartburn symptoms are similar to those of a heart attack and are often misdiagnosed as such. It is important to have the problem diagnosed correctly in order to obtain adequate treatment.
The process of detecting heartburn is simple and sequential. First, ascertain that the pain is isolated only to the area behind the ribs or breastbone. Pain that is spread out to the arms or shoulders may indicate heart problems. Then verify that the pain is momentary and occurs after engaging in certain activities, such as when eating meals, exercising or when anxious. If you experience moderate to complete relief after taking antacids and do not experience cold sweats, then you are most likely a victim of heartburn and not something more severe.
If your heartburn does not respond to antacids or you suspect that it might be an indicator of the more serious acid reflux condition, a medical practitioner must administer the Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) exam or an upper endoscopy. If these two tests do not prove to work then an esophageal pH test may be recommended. The purpose of the pH test is to determine the amount of stomach acid that seeps back into the esophagus in a 24-hour period.
For most people, heartburn lasts only for short periods and usually disappears after a few hours. It may go away on its own or with the help of OTC medication. Approximately one-half of all pregnant women suffer from heartburn more often than women who are not pregnant. This is often experienced in the second or third trimester of pregnancy. These women may take OTC drugs but only at the recommendation of their OB/GYN to ensure the medication does not harm the fetus or the mother. For the small group of people whose heartburn is persistent and unresponsive to OTC medication, specialized care is needed to eliminate this malady.
Treatment for heartburn ranges from unconventional methods to scientific ones. When you find that you are experiencing heartburn after meals, identify and avoid the types of foods that cause this discomfort. These include but are not limited to spicy, acidic and fried foods.
If you prefer a more “natural” treatment, common products in your household can effectively combat mild heartburn. Chewing gum can help relieve heartburn symptoms as it stimulates the production of saliva, which washes away stomach acid in the esophagus more rapidly. Drinking half a teaspoon of baking soda mixed in a glass of water may also help. Baking soda is a base and therefore neutralizes stomach acids.
Studies have shown that aloe vera juice can significantly reduce inflammation of the esophageal and stomach linings, while extracts from the slippery elm tree thicken the mucus lining of the stomach. One common myth is that milk cures heartburn because it contains calcium. The truth is it may provide momentary relief, but the protein, fat and calcium in milk may actually cause your stomach to produce more acid and further exacerbate heartburn symptoms.
Over-the-counter medication can bring immediate relief from mild heartburn. These drugs contain calcium carbonate that neutralizes stomach acids. If regular OTC antacids do not provide relief and a doctor’s visit proves that you suffer from GERD, then Histamine-2 Blockers may work for you. These drugs reduce the amount of acid your stomach produces meaning less of it will flow back to your esophagus. Histamine-2 blockers may be purchased without a prescription in low doses. If the doctor recommends a higher dose then you must obtain a prescription to purchase them.
Proton Pump Inhibitors, or PPIs, are also an effective way of treating GERD. They are taken in pill or liquid form and reduce the amount of acid produced in the stomach, leaving very little to flow back into the esophagus and allowing it to heal from previous irritations. Your doctor may also prescribe heartburn-coating drugs to protect your inflamed esophagus. These drugs bind to proteins and form a substance that protects the lining of your stomach and esophagus. You should take heartburn-coating drugs at least one full hour before meals, four times a day and on an empty stomach
When prescribed medication and lifestyle changes fail to provide lasting relief from symptoms of GERD, surgery may be required. This is because your esophagus may be narrower than usual or severely inflamed. Surgery is generally a last resort supported by tests that indicate a successful prognosis.
There are some forms of minimally invasive procedures, such as the Stretta procedure, wherein high-energy waves are directed at the walls of the lower intestines causing them to scar. This scarring tightens the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) and prevents acid from returning into the esophagus. This procedure must be repeated several times to be effective. Being a minimally invasive procedure, there are no incisions and it can be performed on an outpatient basis.
Before invasive surgery is performed, pre-surgery tests to check the muscle fitness, manometry and motility of the esophagus must be conducted. The surgery typically performed for chronic and persistent heartburn is the fundoplication where the top part of the stomach is wrapped around the lower esophagus and sutured in place. This strengthens the LES against the backflow of stomach acids.
Heartburn typically affects those living a sedentary lifestyle. Eating pizza and drinking soda in front of your TV will more likely add to your discomfort and drastic dietary and lifestyle changes are needed to cure heartburn. Lifestyle changes are the easiest and least expensive methods to counter heartburn. Avoid smoking tobacco-based products as they decrease the amount of saliva in your mouth. Drinking caffeine, soda and alcohol weaken the LES in the end giving the acid an inlet back into the esophagus. You may also need to shed a few pounds if you are overweight, reduce your food portions and spread them out over five or six meals so that your stomach does not overproduce acids to digest the food you have eaten.
With the recommendation to avoid certain foods comes the encouragement to eat more of heartburn-fighting foods like oatmeal, melons and bananas. Eating slowly and chewing your food more thoroughly can help in the reduction of heartburn instances, as it produces more saliva, which is a primary component in digesting food anyway. You should also avoid overeating and drink more water. Exercising is also proven to reduce instances of heartburn.
Avoid snacking late at night and immediately after eating any meal to give your stomach adequate time for digestion. Make sure there is at least a three-hour interval between the time you eat and the time you go to sleep. When lying down, raise your head and chest so that they are above your feet. This is to decrease the likelihood of stomach acids flowing upward into the esophagus. Simple changes like loose clothing can also significantly improve heartburn as it relieves the pressure in your stomach. Drink more water overall to improve digestion and flush out toxins. These minor adjustments will not only help your heartburn but also improve your overall health.
If you suffer from a pre-existing heart, lung or kidney condition, seek medical advice before embarking on a treatment for heartburn, GERD or acid reflux disease, as certain treatments react adversely with medicines taken for these conditions.
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