Although chronic heartburn might feel like a heart condition, it’s actually a symptom of a medical condition — acid reflux. Acid reflux occurs when your lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a small, circular muscle at the bottom of your esophagus, relaxes when it should contract and allows the acid from your stomach to flow back up the tube.
When the acid surges upward, it irritates your esophageal lining, and you experience pain. Because your LES is in your chest cavity near your heart, it earned the name “heartburn,” even though it has nothing to do with your heart.
However, just because heartburn doesn’t indicate a cardiac problem doesn’t mean it’s not serious. Chronic heartburn indicates severe acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which can damage your esophagus and lead to complications like Barrett’s esophagus.
So when does occasional heartburn cross the line and become a medical concern?
Dr. Darrien Gaston at Metropolitan Gastroenterology Consultants in Chicago, Illinois, has compiled the following guidelines explaining which heartburn symptoms and situations signify you should seek medical attention.
You have severe and frequent symptoms
Occasional heartburn is normal. A huge plate of lasagna, a few too many cocktails, high stress, and lying down immediately after eating can cause a case of heartburn now and then.
However, if you have heartburn two or more times weekly, you may have acid reflux or GERD. In addition to heartburn, you may experience:
- Chest pain
- Trouble swallowing
- The sensation of having a lump in your throat
- Difficulty sleeping
- Nausea and/or vomiting
These symptoms are signs to call Dr. Gaston.
You take too many antacids — and they aren’t working
Over-the-counter antacids can quell a sour stomach and neutralize stomach acid temporarily. But if you have a problem with your LES, popping Tums® is only a quick fix and not a very effective one. The real solution is to see Dr. Gaston and determine the underlying cause of your heartburn. A good rule of thumb is: If you’re taking OTC antacids twice a week or more, call us.
You’ve changed your habits — and that’s not working either
If you’re prone to heartburn, you can do several things to prevent flare-ups. The most effective changes include an altered diet. By avoiding the foods and drinks commonly associated with acid reflux, you may be able to reduce your symptoms and preserve your esophagus. Try cutting back on:
- Citrus fruits and juices
- Garlic and onions
- Tomato sauces
- Fried and fatty foods
Food and drink aren’t the only culprits; wearing tight-fitting clothing, being overweight, and lifting heavy items can also trigger acid reflux. Avoiding situations that apply pressure to your abdomen can help. If these lifestyle changes don’t help, it’s time to call Dr. Gaston.
How we treat heartburn
Dr. Gaston runs diagnostic tests to determine the root cause of your chronic heartburn and acid reflux. He may use X-rays, an endoscopy, an ambulatory acid probe test, and/or esophageal motility testing to visualize your esophagus and measure its function.
He develops a treatment plan to address the condition, depending on what he finds. You may require proton pump inhibitors or H2 blockers to reduce your stomach acid or surgery to repair or strengthen your LES.
Don’t let acid reflux control your life and endanger your health; call Metropolitan Gastroenterology Consultants today.