Heartburn or acid reflux is a burning sensation experienced in the chest, which occurs when this muscle weakens and the digestive juices from the stomach spill over into the food pipe, causing severe damage. Greater than 60 million adults in America experience heartburn at least once a month and about 15 million suffer with daily symptoms.
Heartburn can be easily treated by:
- Antacids and other medications that reduce stomach acid
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Avoiding tight clothes that put pressure on your abdomen
- Avoiding spicy foods, caffeinated beverages and large fatty meals
- Avoiding lying down after a meal, which also means avoiding late meals
- Elevating the head of your bed
- Not smoking
- Relaxation techniques such as massage, gentle exercise and hypnosis
If left untreated frequent acid reflux can weaken the muscle tissue surrounding the esophagus, causing the upper part of your stomach to bulge up through the diaphragm into your chest cavity. This is called hiatal hernia. The development of a hiatal hernia can further damage the lining of the esophagus and even cause cancer.
So, how would you know if that burning sensation in your chest is something you need to worry about? Here are three simple rules you can follow to help you determine the seriousness of your chest pain.
- Timing: Chest pain following a large meal, without any other symptom, is likely to be acid reflux.
- Accompanying symptoms: Chest pain accompanied by increased sweating, a feeling that your heart is beating too hard or fast, or shortness of breath may indicate a heart-related condition.
- Persistent symptoms: If heartburn persists and you experience difficulty swallowing, pain in the chest that radiates from below the breastbone, shortness of breath or a bloating after eating you may having hiatal hernia. If you experience stomach or chest pain, vomiting, difficulty swallowing, or unable pass motion or gas, your hernia may have become strangulated without blood supply. This is an emergency situation that without immediate care can become life-threatening.
Heartburn once a week or less that relieves with antacids is nothing to worry about. But frequent acid reflux tends to affect your eating, sleeping, activities of daily living and can reduce the quality of life. If you are experiencing heartburn symptoms more than twice a week for a period of more than six months, it is time to visit your doctor.