Chronic Heartburn: More Than Occasional Discomfort
Heartburn is a painful sensation in your chest that some individuals experience after eating. Also known as acid indigestion, heartburn is caused by stomach acid traveling up into the esophagus. For most people, the experience is temporary and infrequent. But repeated bouts of heartburn over time can lead to more serious health problems. If you’re experiencing chronic heartburn or just want to understand how to mitigate infrequent occurrences, we’ve answered some common questions below:
What causes heartburn and how do people experience it?
Heartburn is a burning sensation in the chest. It's caused when stomach acid backs up into your esophagus, the tube that connects your throat to your stomach.
You might have heartburn if you feel:
- A burning feeling under your breastbone or where your ribs meet at the bottom of your sternum (the breastbone). This is often worse after eating a meal, especially one with fried or fatty foods.
- Burning in other areas of your upper abdomen—between your breasts, on either side at about the level of the belly button, near or behind one nipple or even down into one leg. Heart disease can cause a similar pain below the middle of the ribcage on both sides but it doesn't radiate into other parts of the body like heartburn does.
What is chronic heartburn?
An imbalance between stomach acids (hydrochloric acid) and digestive enzymes that help break down food in the small intestine causes heartburn. If you experience heartburn frequently, after every meal or after most meals, then likely, you have chronic heartburn. If left uncontrolled, the lining of your esophagus can become damaged, potentially leading to cancer or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
What is GERD?
Chronic heartburn is often a symptom of or the catalyst for GERD, a condition in which the lower esophageal sphincter does not stay closed properly and allows the stomach acid to travel up into your esophagus. This causes burning and irritation in the throat, chest and even your ear canals.
How do you best treat heartburn pain?
Over the counter medications and prescription pills are available to treat heartburn. But one of the best ways to treat heartburn is to stop it from happening. Here are some tips to avoid heartburn:
- Choose foods wisely: avoid spicy foods, fried foods and foods that are high in fat and sugar.
- Take your time: avoid eating in a rush or on the go.
- Avoid big meals: try smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day.
- Remain upright: do not lay down after eating.
- Don’t stress snack: Avoid eating when you are stressed or tired.
When should you seek treatment for heartburn?
If you're experiencing nausea or vomiting, lightheadedness or fainting spells, sweating or dizziness, chest pain and difficulty breathing or even loss of consciousness (syncope), seek medical attention immediately. These are all signs that your heartburn may be caused by a more serious problem. Otherwise, seek medical attention if you are experiencing heartburn on a regular basis.
In addition to those symptoms above, if you have been diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) then you should also see a physician if:
- You have frequent acid regurgitation—more than twice a week
- Your symptoms aren’t controlled with over-the-counter medications in combination with lifestyle changes
- Your symptoms don't improve after three months of treatment
Heartburn can be a painful and uncomfortable condition to live with. The good news is that there are many things you can do to prevent and treat heartburn, including not smoking, eating right, exercising regularly, managing stress and taking medication when necessary. Talk to your doctor about your concerns and start to feel better, faster. Find a primary care location near you.