September 8, 2007



Heartburn is a painful burning sensation in the esophagus, just below or behind the breastbone. The pain often rises in your chest and may radiate to your neck or throat.

Alternative Names

Pyrosis; Non-cardiac chest pain

Common Causes

Almost everyone has occasional heartburn. If you have frequent, ongoing heartburn, you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Normally, when food or liquid enters your stomach, a band of muscle at the end of your esophagus (called the lower esophageal sphincter or LES) closes off the esophagus. If this muscle fails to close tightly enough, stomach contents can back up (reflux) into the esophagus. This partially digested material is usually acidic and can irritate the esophagus, causing heartburn and other symptoms.
Heartburn is more likely to occur if you have a hiatal hernia, which is when the top part of the stomach protrudes upward into the chest cavity. This weakens the LES and makes it easier for acid to reflux from the stomach into the esophagus.
Heartburn can be brought on or worsened by pregnancy and by many different medications.

Such drugs include:

Calcium channel blockers for high blood pressure
Progestin for abnormal menstrual bleeding or birth control
Anticholinergics (e.g., for sea sickness)
Certain bronchodilators for asthma
Tricyclic antidepressants
Dopamine for Parkinson's disease
Sedatives for insomnia or anxiety
Beta blockers for high blood pressure or heart disease
If you suspect that one of your medications may be causing heartburn, talk to your doctor. NEVER change or stop medication you take regularly without talking to your doctor.

Home Care

Pay attention to heartburn and treat it, especially if you feel symptoms often. Over time, ongoing reflux can damage the lining of your esophagus and cause serious problems. The good news is that making changes to certain habits can go a long way to preventing heartburn and other symptoms of GERD.

The following tips will help you avoid heartburn and other GERD symptoms. If these measures are not working, talk to your doctor.

First, avoid foods and beverages that can trigger reflux, such as:

  • Alcohol
    Caffeine, carbonated beverages
    Citrus fruits and juices
    Tomatoes and tomato sauces
    Spicy or fatty foods, full-fat dairy products
    Peppermint and spearmint

Next, try changing your eating habits

Eat smaller meals. A full stomach puts extra pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), increasing the chance that food will reflux.

Avoid eating or lying down within 2-3 hours of bedtime. Lying down with a full stomach results in stomach contents pressing harder against the LES.

Avoid bending over or exercising just after eating.

Make other lifestyle changes as needed:

Lose weight if you are overweight. Obesity increases abdominal pressure, which can push stomach contents up into the esophagus. In some cases, GERD symptoms disappear completely after an overweight person loses 10-15 pounds.

Stop smoking. Chemicals in cigarette smoke weaken the LES.

Sleep with your head raised about 6 inches. Sleeping with the head higher than the stomach reduces the likelihood that partially digested food will reflux into the esophagus. Place books, bricks, or blocks securely under the legs at the head of your bed. Or use a wedge-shaped pillow under your mattress. Sleeping on extra pillows does NOT work well for relieving heartburn.

Avoid tight-fitting belts or garments around the waist. They squeeze the stomach, and may force food to reflux.

Reduce stress. Try yoga, tai chi, or meditation.

If you still do not have full relief, try over-the-counter medications:

Antacids, like Maalox or Mylanta, work by neutralizing stomach acid.
H2 blockers, like Pepcid AC, Tagamet, and Zantac, reduce stomach acid production.
Proton pump inhibitors, like Prilosec OTC, stop nearly all stomach acid production.

Call your health care provider if

Call 911 if:

You vomit material that is bloody or black like coffee grounds.
Your stools are black (like tar) or maroon.
The burning sensation is accompanied by chest squeezing, crushing, or pressure. Sometimes a heart attack is mistaken for heartburn.

Call your doctor if:

The problem becomes frequent or doesn't go away with a few weeks of self-care.
You start losing weight unintentionally.
You have difficulty swallowing (food feels stuck as it goes down).
You have a persistent, unexplained cough or wheezing.
Your symptoms get worse with antacids or H2 blockers.
You think that one of your medications may be causing heartburn. DO NOT change or stop your medication on your own, without discussing with your doctor.

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