Heartburn (pyrosis) is a common occurrence; it is a burning pain that is felt in the chest, it however has no association with the heart. When food passes from the esophagus to the stomach, there is a sphincter between the esophagus and stomach (gastroesophageal sphincter) which prevents food that has entered the stomach from going back into the esophagus. Heartburn is the pain felt when some of the contents in your stomach goes back into the esophagus due to relaxation of the Gastroesophageal sphincter. This pain is felt in the chest, usually behind the sternum (breastbone). The burning sensation is usually felt few minutes after meals and worsens if one lies down or bend down.
Usually, heartburn is not a cause for alarm but persistent heartburn over a long period of time might be a symptom of Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Factors that contributes to heartburn
– Drinks such as alcohol can cause the Gastroesophageal sphincter to relax, thereby causing acid reflux. Caffeinated and acidic drinks( like grape or orange juice) can increase the frequency of heartburns.
– Chocolate, fatty/ fried foods
– Pregnancy. Heartburn can occur in pregnancy due to increased abdominal pressure and will likely stop after delivery.
– Eating heavy meals before going to bed.
– Being overweight or obese.
– Smoking weakens the gastroesophageal sphincter thereby causing acid reflux into the esophagus
How to relieve heartburn
– Over the counter medications like antacids. (Medications should not be used in pregnancy without a doctors prescription as some medications may have harmful effects on the fetus).
– If you occasionally have heartburn, do not wear clothing that are tight around the abdomen.
– Do not eat at least 3 – 4 hours before going to bed.
– Do not lie down immediately after eating.
– Limit your alcohol intake.
– Quit smoking.
– Do not eat or take drinks that trigger your heartburn.
– Chewing gum increases saliva production and this can help reduce the acidity in the esophagus. If mint increases your heartburn then do not chew gum that contains mint.
– If you usually experience heartburn at night especially before or while sleeping, elevate your pillow in a way that it raises your head and shoulders.
Some people experience heartburn if they sleep on their right side. This could be probably due to the anatomical position of the esophagus. Changing your sleeping position may be helpful in this regard.
When to see a doctor
Heartburns may just be due to isolated relaxation of the Gastroesophageal sphincter. But sometimes it might be a symptom of GERD. If your heartburn occurs repeatedly for more than 3 weeks, it is advisable to see a doctor. Treatment will then depend on the severity of the condition. Your doctor might prescribe certain medications to help with the condition after taking a history and examining you. But in very severe cases (chronic GERD), surgery might be required.
Oyewole Ibukun is currently a Medical student of Olabisi Onabanjo University. She has a passion for seeking knowledge with a creative, detail oriented and analytical mindset.