Take Care of Simple Heartburn Before It Becomes Complicated

In this article:

  • The definition of chronic heartburn.
  • The medical complications of chronic heartburn.
  • When to seek medical advice.

Almost everyone experiences heartburn occasionally. For most SharpMen, heartburn is nothing more than an infrequent inconvenience brought on by overeating.

Unfortunately, according to the American College of Gastroenterology, approximately 15 million Americans suffer from heartburn on a daily basis.

The problem?

Persistent heartburn can have a serious negative effect on a SharpMan’s long-term digestive health. Check out the following SharpHealth tips about this seemingly simple condition, its potential complications when left untreated, and safe and effective ways to stop it before it causes real trouble:

Chronic Heartburn Defined

When heartburn and indigestion occur frequently, the condition is known as gastroesophageal (pronounced gas tro ee soph a jeel) reflux disease (GERD). GERD is caused by stomach acid backing up into the esophagus, the tube that connects the throat to the stomach. Because stomach acid has no place in your esophagus, the acid causes you to feel the discomfort associated with heartburn, one of the problems commonly associated with GERD. Other symptoms of GERD include difficulty swallowing and recurring nausea.

So what is the underlying cause of GERD?GERD is generally caused by weakness of the muscle at the top of the stomach, where the stomach meets the esophagus. This muscle, called the lower esophageal sphincter, is designed to control the opening and closing of the bottom of the esophagus. When this muscle loses its tone, it fails to close properly and allows acid-soaked stomach contents to back up into the esophagus.

In the past, physicians commonly believed that GERD was caused by a hiatal hernia, a protrusion of a portion of the stomach into the chest. While studies indicate that the presence of a hiatal hernia may affect the tone of the lower esophageal sphincter muscle, this condition is not the uniform cause of GERD.

What You Can Do About Heartburn and GERD

Minor changes in lifestyle may help. The following is a list of lifestyle adjustments that may help to control or reduce heartburn and other symptoms of GERD:

  • Don’t drink alcohol. Alcohol relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter muscle and may irritate the mucous layer that lines the esophagus.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking can reduce the muscle tone of the lower esophageal sphincter and increase acid production in the stomach.
  • Avoid heavy meals and eating too quickly.
  • Avoid foods that are spicy, greasy or acidic (such as tomatoes, onions, orange juice, etc.).
  • Don’t wear pants that are too tight around the waist. Anything that puts pressure on the abdominal area may force stomach contents upward into the esophagus.
  • Elevate the head of your bed. GERD is often worse at night. Why? Sleeping horizontally means that you lose the assistance of gravity in keeping stomach acid down where it belongs. By elevating the head of your bed or propping your head up with pillows, you may be able to reduce nighttime heartburn.

Some prescription medications may make it worse. Certain over-the-counter and prescription medications can exacerbate the symptoms of GERD. Aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and some steroids can irritate the stomach, so check with your doctor if you take over-the-counter pain relievers or arthritis medication.

When all else fails. If lifestyle changes and the use of over-the-counter antacids fail to control your heartburn and GERD, or if you use over-the-counter antacids more than twice per week, consider seeking the advice of your physician.

Why You Should Have Heartburn and GERD Checked Out

When left untreated, the chronic presence of stomach acid in the esophagus can lead to the development of ulcers in the esophagus. You know, actual holes in your esophagus. Not great.

More serious is the fact that unmanaged GERD can cause Barrett’s esophagus, a precancerous condition. According to the American College of Gastroenterology, SharpMen who develop Barrett’s esophagus are 30 times more likely to develop esophageal cancer than asymptomatic patients, and SharpMen who experience chronic heartburn but do not develop Barrett’s esophagus are eight times more likely to develop esophageal cancer than guys who experience no gastroesophageal symptoms.

As with so many other medical conditions, the earlier Barrett’s esophagus is diagnosed and treated, the better, so it’s worth getting your chronic heartburn checked out ASAP.

Treatment for GERD

What can you expect? Before prescribing a treatment plan, your doctor may want to run some tests. The following three examinations are most commonly required for GERD diagnosis:

Simple blood work. Your physician will likely ask to draw blood in order to rule out the presence of an ulcer-causing bacteria in the stomach and to ensure that you are not experiencing bleeding in the digestive tract.

Upper GI (or barium swallow). Your physician will also want to take a number of painless X-rays of your esophagus, stomach and small intestine. In order to better judge the function of these organs, your physician will ask you to drink a beverage that includes barium prior to the test. The barium drink doesn’t taste great, but it does the trick.

Upper endoscopy. In this procedure, your physician will ask you to say “aaah,” and insert a plastic tube fitted with a light and a small camera inserted down your throat. The aim is to visually inspect your esophagus and stomach. The procedure is usually performed in your office or another outpatient facility and requires you to be sedated.

What are the treatment options? If your physician determines that you have GERD, he or she is likely to prescribe an acid-reducing drug such as Prilosec or Prevacid. While these drugs do not boost the functionality of the lower esophageal sphincter, they do reduce the amount of acid in the stomach and will typically provide relief from indigestion. Decreasing the amount of acid also provides a measure of protection to the esophagus.

A daily dose of prescription medication is often all it takes to relieve chronic heartburn and prevent a more serious digestive condition. If medication fails to control the problem, surgery may be recommended. Researchers are developing new and less invasive surgical procedures to correct the laxity of the lower esophageal muscle that causes GERD.

Things to consider while under treatment. While under treatment for GERD, patients should be regularly monitored by a medical professional to ensure against the development of Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer.

SharpMen interested in more information about chronic heartburn should check out the following links:

American College of Gastroenterology