Heartburn. It’s no wonder so many people are confused about it. After all, it has nothing to do with your heart. Heartburn earned its name from the burning sensation it causes in the middle of your chest – a feeling that may also be accompanied by a sour or bitter taste in your mouth or throat.
Heartburn is a symptom that results when stomach acid flows back up into your esophagus – the long tube that runs from your mouth to your stomach. Normally, when you swallow, an opening to your stomach relaxes to let food or fluid in. Then it closes like a gate, ensuring that your esophagus is a “one-way street.” (In other words, what goes down, stays down.) But if the sphincter around this opening doesn’t work right, it allows stomach acid to back up, which irritates the esophagus and causes heartburn.
Heartburn often happens after a big meal or if you lie down too soon after eating. A wide array of other factors can also make it worse: pregnancy, extra weight, tight clothing, stress, cigarettes, coffee, alcohol, and certain spicy or acidic or fatty foods. It can bother you for just a few minutes. Or it can last for hours.
If heartburn happens more than twice a week, you may have a chronic condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or acid reflux. That means the sphincter near your stomach is definitely not doing its job. Your heartburn may be due to a problem such as an inflamed stomach, ulcers, or a hiatal hernia, where a part of your stomach pushes up through a muscle wall into the chest.
Repeated heartburn can lead to an inflamed esophagus, which can cause bleeding or trouble swallowing if it becomes severe.
What can you do about heartburn? Start by making some lifestyle changes. Wait at least two to three hours after eating to lie down. Avoid foods that “turn up the heat.” Put 6-inch blocks under the head of your bed. Lose weight, if you need to. Stop smoking or drinking. These changes can make a big difference.
If heartburn persists, try some over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as antacids, which neutralize stomach acids. Try antacids that contain both magnesium hydroxide and aluminum hydroxide. These combination products cancel out side effects of constipation and diarrhea that may result if these ingredients are taken individually.
If OTC medications don’t do the trick, have a talk with your doctor or pharmacist. Don’t wait for more than two weeks. Your doctor may refer you to a doctor who specializes in diseases of the stomach and intestines, called a gastroenterologist. You may need prescription medications or tests to further pinpoint the problem.
Medication for heartburn works in a variety of ways: by reducing the amount of acid your stomach makes, by reducing the backflow of acid into your esophagus, or by strengthening your sphincter and making your stomach empty faster. Sometimes surgery can achieve a similar result.
Heartburn may have nothing to do with your heart, but remember this: If you’re ever in doubt about a pain in your chest, don’t hesitate to call your doctor. Heart attack is often mistaken for heartburn. And, that’s not a mistake you want to overlook.
Heartburn/Indigestion Symptoms and Over the Counter Medications