You’ve just eaten a big meal and leaned back in your favorite chair to watch your favorite TV program. As you begin to relax, your chest starts to hurt so much it feels like it’s on fire. You may be experiencing heartburn. According to studies, about 30% of adults experience occasional heartburn, while 10% experience heartburn almost every single every day. Heartburn is common, and an occasional episode is generally nothing to worry about. However, many people have already considered heartburn as a uncomfortable condition that requires medication or medical attention.
Heartburn usually follows after a heavy meal. To understand how this condition comes about, it is best to be aware of what exactly happens when we eat food. The food that is swallowed travels from the mouth to the stomach through a hollow tube called the esophagus. Before food enters the stomach, it must pass through a tight muscle at the lower part of the esophagus called the Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES). The lower esophageal sphincter prevents food from traveling backward into the esophagus. Once in the stomach, stomach acid slowly digests the food. This acid is very strong and can damage most parts of the body. Fortunately, the stomach is protected from its own acid by a special mucous layer. The esophagus, however, does not have any such special protection. If the lower esophageal sphincter does not close completely, the lower part of the esophagus can be damaged by stomach acid. When this happens, heartburn is experienced.
Heartburn can last for several hours and is often worse after eating, or when lying down, or when a person who just ate suddenly bends over. Heartburn is the most common symptom of reflux. Reflux occurs when acid in the stomach, which is there to help digest food, rises up into the esophagus, causing pain, irritation, and discomfort.
Some other factors that can make heartburn worse include certain foods such as fatty and spicy foods, chocolate, caffeine, onions, tomato sauce, carbonated beverages and mint. Alcohol, large meals, lying too soon after eating, cigarette smoking, sedatives, calcium channel blockers and antidepressant medications can also trigger heartburn.
Heartburn, also called acid indigestion, is the most common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD); a disease in which stomach acid or, occasionally, bile flows back (refluxes) into the esophagus. Heartburn usually feels like a burning chest pain beginning behind the breastbone and moving upward to the neck and throat. Many people say it feels like food is coming back into the mouth leaving an acid or bitter taste.
Most heartburn problems are mild, but if a person experiences frequent discomfort, there may already be some complications that need medical treatment or the use of prescription medications. If a person encounters heartburn several times a week, or if it returns soon after the effects of antacids wear off, medical attention may be necessary. A person with heartburn should also consult a doctor if he or she often wakes up at night due to discomfort brought about by reflux. One may need further medical care, or possibly even surgery, if a person experience difficulty swallowing, regurgitates blood or black material, suddenly loses weight, or if the stool is black in color.
Most people can manage the discomfort of heartburn with lifestyle modifications and over-the-counter medications. But if heartburn is severe, these remedies may offer only temporary or partial relief. Heartburn pain can be mistaken for the pain associated with heart disease or a heart attack, but there are differences. Heartburn pain is less likely to be associated with physical activity. Exercise may aggravate pain resulting from heart disease, and rest may relieve the pain.