Heartburn is a very common condition. In fact, a study by the Society of Gastroenterologists, in 2012, showed that more than a quarter of the population will have heartburns at least once a month.
But as common as it may be, experts warn that people who experience frequent heartburns should not treat the condition with kid gloves, as this feeling could be an early sign of stomach and peptic ulcers and, in chronic cases, cancer of the stomach.
They say that burning sensation in the chest may be the beginning of a gastro-intestinal disease.
Consultant Gastroenterologist at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Dr. Funmi Lesi, defines a heartburn as a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux which occurs when acid or other contents from the stomach “back up” or return into the esophagus, the tube that food passes through from your mouth to your stomach.
Lesi states,“ Heartburn is a problem that stems from a muscle that may be weak or may relax at inappropriate times. It is called the lower oesophageal sphincter and it is located between the stomach and the oesophagus. If it doesn’t close quickly enough, it can’t prevent the acid backwash. That is what results in heartburn.”
But how do you know that a heartburn is just a ‘heart burn’ and not a problem with your heart or digestive system? When do you seek medical help?
Do you feel that peppery sensation in your throat, down your guts so much so that you can’t even sleep? Does it occur some hours after you have had a sumptuous meal and your chest feels like it’s on fire?
If yes, doctors say these signs could be a digestive problem or something serious like a heart disease.
If you are trying to figure out if it’s just heartburn or something that may be life-threatening, internal medicine specialist and professor of medicine at the University of California Los Angeles, Peter Galier, says you should only consider heartburn “normal” if it occurs once a week or less.
He states that it’s time to seek medical help if one has had heartburn more than once a week for six months or longer more without any relief.
Galier says for quick diagnosis, one must also pay attention to the symptoms.
He says,“I typically ask patients who complain of heartburn these three questions: Are you sweaty? Do you have palpitations? Are you short of breath when you are experiencing heartburns?If the answer is yes to any of these symptoms, you should see a doctor to make sure that it is not heart-related or the onset of an ulcer.”
You should also know the time it occurs. Galier says if it happens after a big meal, and it’s just the burning in the chest, with no other symptoms, it’s more than likely to be heartburn or indigestion. But if one is in doubt, it’s wise to see a doctor for an evaluation.
Also, professor of medicine and director of endoscopy at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Phil Katz, says if chest pains occur too frequently after a meal, it is a clear sign of a cardiac or metabolic disease.
“It could be cardiac, but is quite easy to differentiate but most people do not know. The classic heartburn symptom is a burning that starts at the upper stomach or lower breastbone and progresses upward and occurs after a meal or when bending over and an antacid should give relief within a few minutes. But if it persists after many days, your heart may be in trouble. Then, please see a physician,” he notes.
As much as foods we eat can cause heartburn, Katz notes that there are some other reasons why people may experience heartburns frequently.
He points out that pregnant women and people who are overweight or obese are more likely to suffer due to elevated levels of the hormone progesterone in their body systems, which may weaken oesophagus temporarily.
“If you are obese or overweight you will have frequent heartburns because fat affects the digestives system. Besides eating a heavy meal, heavy lifting can cause heartburn. So can exercise. Lying flat on your back or tummy, especially after eating a big meal can also cause it.” he states.
Food is a major cause of heartburns according to the physicians. So, a change in diet may be the fastest to get rid of frequent heartburns which pose no risk for heart diseases or ulcers.
It is important to get rid of frequent heartburns as they can reduce your quality of life. It can affect not just what you eat, but how you sleep and what activities you do.
You may also want to cut down on foods such as chocolate, carbonated beverages, peppermint, coffee, citrus foods, fried and fatty foods, and spicy foods which Katz says often cause acid reflux or inflammation in the digestive tract.