Heartburn is a condition which causes symptoms such as a burning feeling in the chest and a sour or bitter taste in the mouth. This situation develops when the acidic contents of the stomach flow back to the esophagus (the tube leading from the mouth to the stomach). Normally, the contents of the stomach are held in place by the lower esophageal sphincter. This is the muscle at the lower end of the esophagus that allows food to pass into the stomach. If this muscle relaxes, or is too weak, the food can flow out of the stomach and back into the esophagus.
There are several factors that may cause the esophageal sphincter to relax.
- Stimulating food substances. Some food we eat, such as volatile oils found in spicy foods or the alcohol present in intoxicating beverages triggers the sphincter to relax. The nicotine in cigarettes may also cause the muscle to loosen up due to its soothing effect.
- Too much of something. Eating too much or simply being overweight can increase pressure on the abdomen and stomach enough to weaken the muscle of the sphincter.
- Presence of hiatal hernia. This type of hernia is where a portion of the stomach protrudes through the same opening in the diaphragm that the esophagus passes through to connect to the stomach. This distention disrupts the flow of food causing heartburn.
- Certain medications. Some of these include oral contraceptives, asthma medications, and some heart medications.
Heartburn is generally diagnosed with a complete portrayal of the symptoms. In very severe cases, a general practitioner may order a barium X-ray. This will illuminate the stomach and esophagus to rule out other problems. As an alternative, health professionals may also examine the esophagus with an endoscope. This instrument can view the interior of the digestive tract, and take tissue and fluid samples.
There are several treatments for heartburn. Most people experience mild cases of heartburn. They can take over-the-counter medications such as antacids to relieve occasional bouts. Chronic heartburn can be treated with medications that prevent the production of acid in the stomach. Examples of these are H2-blockers like ranitidine that can be brought over-the-counter or medications like omeprazole available only by prescription.
Heartburn can be easily prevented. Some of these measures are:
- Initiate lifestyle changes. Quit smoking or lose weight to help maintain the integrity of the esophagus.
- Elevate your head. Sleeping on an elevated pillow of at least 6 inches helps prevent stomach contents from regurgitating into the esophagus.
- Go to bed hungry. Sleep on an empty stomach as sleeping increases the chance of stomach acids rising up the esophagus.
- Cut back on consumption. Avoid alcohol, fat, chocolate, and peppermint in the diet if heartburn events occur frequently.
Heartburn may seem like a trivial medical condition. When not attended properly, it may cause many health complications. The acids from the stomach can further erode the lumen of the esophagus, making it prone to bacterial infections or increase the chances of developing gastrointestinal cancers.