What is Heartburn?
It is one of the symptoms of GERD (Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease) and is commonly described as the burning sensation felt in the chest region after a heavy meal. The food we eat is transported to the stomach by a food pipe (esophagus) via the gastro-esophageal valve. Anything which causes relaxation of this valve, precipitates the upward movement of the acid secreted during the process of digestion, thus giving rise to heartburn. Heartburn or acid reflux occurring more than twice a week is diagnosed as GERD.
What Causes Heartburn?
Heartburn is common and has a dietary or lifestyle cause behind it. It is seen in people of all age groups and is at times idiopathic (without any underlying cause). The following are certain predisposing factors or causes of heartburn.
- Overuse of stimulants like tea, coffee etc
- Sedentary life style
- Hiatal hernia – It is an anatomical defect in the diaphragm due to which upper part of the stomach enters the chest cavity leading to acid reflux.
Heartburn During Pregnancy
The cause of heartburn or acid reflux during pregnancy is the hormone progesterone which relaxes the valve between the esophagus and the stomach leading to reflux of the stomach acid. This is felt more commonly in the second trimester of pregnancy. Another reason is that the growing fetus pushes the abdominal organs upwards thus causing regurgitation of acid back into the food pipe. These symptoms disappear as soon as the baby is born.
The best way to deal with heartburn during pregnancy is to have small frequent meals, plenty of fluids and to restrict the intake of tea and coffee. Sleeping with the head elevated also helps to control the reflux to some extent.
Signs and Symptoms of Heartburn
Burning sensation in the chest region after a heavy meal is the commonest heartburn symptoms. It is normally found to be associated with other GERD symptoms like:
- Burning in throat from the acid reflux
- Belching and flatulence
- Bloating after a meal
- Dry persistent cough
- Bad breath
- Abdominal pain
- Hoarseness of voice
Cough and hoarseness of voice are seen in patients with long standing symptoms of acid reflux. The acid rises to the throat and causes irritation of the larynx and trachea.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Heartburn
The diagnosis is done mostly on the basis of clinical symptoms and presence of one or more predisposing factors. To confirm GERD, certain diagnostic tests are available:
- Endoscopy – Visualization of the gastric organs with a fiber optic microscope to get the exact diagnosis
- Barium study
- Biopsy in case a lesion is found on endoscopy
The acid reflux treatment options available are mainly to take care of the acid secretion. Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are commonly used. They reduce the acid reflux by decreasing the acid production.
Oral antacids in the form of chew-able tablets and syrups are used to treat mild symptoms like gas and heartburn and are found to be very effective.
Prevention of Heartburn
Heartburn is more of a lifestyle and habit related health trouble. If you maintain a healthy routine, it can be taken care of even without medication. The following are certain useful tips and heartburn remedies to help you prevent the health condition.
- Do not eat one large meal as it will lead to a lot of acid secretion and you are more likely to get heartburn. Small portions and meals at frequent intervals is more advisable.
- Try not to lie down immediately after a meal.
- Avoid taking tea, coffee and other stimulants on an empty stomach. Have them in limited portions along with some snacks like crackers or toast.
- In case you are overweight, begin an exercise routine which is light to moderate.
- Unwanted stress can also at times cause acidity. Try relaxation techniques and yoga.
- Avoid wearing very tight fitting clothes at the abdomen.
- Quit smoking.
- Sleep with the head end of the bed slightly raised.
- Have plenty of fluids and liquids. However, it is a good habit to have only sips of water between your meals to avoid bloating of the abdomen.