What is Heartburn?

Heartburn is a burning irritation in the upper middle of the chest, caused by stomach acid rising up into the esophagus. When it becomes a chronic problem, it’s often referred to as acid reflux disease. Short-term and isolated incidents of heartburn are usually caused by eating fatty, acidic, or otherwise irritating foods.

Allowing chronic heartburn to go on without treatment may permanently damage the lining of your esophagus. Taking too many over-the-counter antacids can also create health problems, so see a doctor for heartburn that occurs more than twice each week or for a few days at a time without a break.

What are the Symptoms of Heartburn?

Pain is the primary symptom, but other signs include:

  • Nausea, especially when the stomach is full
  • Increased pain intensity when lying down or bending over
  • Burping and partial regurgitation.

Severe cases can lead to vomiting, problems swallowing, and even weight loss in the long run.

Heartburn Causes

Heartburn is caused by stomach acid moving up into the esophagus, which is the tube which connects the mouth to the stomach. There is a band of muscle at the lower end of the esophagus which relaxes and opens up to allow food to pass in, and then tightens to prevent food or stomach acid getting out again. However, if this band of muscles weakens or relaxes at a time that it shouldn’t, then acid from the stomach can back up into the esophagus and cause a burning sensation.

Certain factors can make some people more susceptible to heartburn than others. For example, those who are overweight or obese are more likely to have heartburn because the excess weight puts additional pressure on the stomach and weaken the muscles in the esophagus. Similarly, pregnant women often get heartburn due to increased pressure on the stomach.

Certain substances can relax the muscles in the esophagus and lead to heartburn, such as:

  • Nicotine
  • Alcohol
  • Coffee
  • Chocolate

Fatty foods are also known to cause heartburn because the stomach takes longer to dispose of stomach acid after digesting them.

Certain medical conditions can increase the risk of heartburn, such as:

  • Gastroparesis
  • Hiatus hernia
  • Stress

Some medications can also cause heartburn, such as:

  • Nitrates (to treat angina)
  • Calcium-channel blockers (to treat high blood pressure)
  • NSAIDS (anti-inflammatory drugs)

How is Heartburn Treated?

Secondary conditions like asthma and throat inflammation arise from untreated heartburn. Most doctors start mild to moderate patients on a series of lifestyle changes to avoid triggering foods and improve their digestive capabilities. Over-the-counter medications are tried first, with prescription antacids and proton pump inhibitors prescribed for more serious cases.

Sometimes a burning pain in the center of the chest can be a sign of a heart attack, so see your doctor for cardiac health screenings if you’re experiencing regular short bursts of pain. It’s better to rule out coronary heart disease or a similar problem than to ignore a potential early warning.

Heartburn Prevention

Heartburn is often triggered by certain foods; if you know your triggers, avoid eating those foods, and avoid excessive consumption of alcohol and fatty foods.

The most common heartburn triggers include:

  • Spicy food
  • Onions
  • Citrus
  • Tomatoes
  • Peppermint

It’s common for heartburn to worsen if you lay down soon after eating. Avoid eating late at night before bed, and sit up straight or go for a walk after eating to avoid heartburn. Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothes when eating too, as this can put pressure on the esophagus and stomach.

If you experience heartburn on a regular basis and are overweight or obese, you may be able to prevent it through losing weight. Similarly, those who smoke may reduce the frequency of heartburn by quitting.