Heartburn is a feeling of a burning or painful sensation in the center of the chest behind the breastbone, or in the upper abdomen. It is usually a symptom indicating the repeated flow of acid backwards from the stomach (which naturally contain acid), into the oesophagus or gullet through a defective sphincter or valve in the lower oesophagus.

Heartburn thus has nothing to do with the heart. It often occurs after a big meal or in deed any meal in some individuals and when reclining or lying down flat.

It is also called acid indigestion, pyrosis, or reflux oesophagitis. It is a component of a complex of medical condition called gastro-esophageal reflux diseases (GERD – in North America; GORD – Gastro-oesophageal-reflux-disease- in the United Kingdom).

It could thus be a cause of upper abdominal pain, if symptoms affect the lower chest or upper abdomen.

Heartburn is a different entity from Indigestion .

A Common Problem

Heartburn is very common. More than 3 in 10 persons suffer from some degree of heartburn worldwide. In the United States, it is estimated that more than 60 million Americans suffer from this disorder, at least once a month, and over 25 million suffer with symptoms of this disorder daily.

Many persons with reflux are in fact free of symptoms. Studies have shown that we all have reflux of acid back into the oesophagus every single day, lasting for a minute or two. It is prolonged exposure of acid to the gullet over hours and days recurrently that lead to burns and inflammation of the oesophagus, causing reflux oesophagitis or heartburn.

Even though this condition is this common, most times, it will not lead to any other problem. Persistent heartburn could lead to or be a signal that something more serious like stomach cancer, is going on.

Why Does Heartburn Occur?

It is normal for acid to sometimes flow backwards into the oesophagus especially when one lies down. Heartburn occurs when this back flow is repeated often, causing the surface of the lower oesophagus to be irritated or get inflamed and ache. It can also occur if the muscles in the lower oesophagus become very sensitive to the bashings from the uncontrolled back flow from the stomach.

Our oesophagus is about 25 cm (10 inches) long, from the back of our throat. The lower 4 cm (1 ½ niche) of the gullet or oesophagus is formed by a special type of muscle that acts as a sphincter or valve controlling flow in one direction towards the stomach, and prevents things we eat from coming backwards when we bend, lie flat, or turn up side down. Even when the pressure inside our abdomen rises, it is capable of responding by becoming tighter in grip.

The some of the muscles of the diaphragm wraps round the lower oesophagus too, and contraction of these muscles serves a further protection, ensuring that the lower oesophagus is kept “locked”.

Any failure of the above mechanism will lead to reflux of acid into the oesophagus as in haitus hernia or pure sphincter failure.

Pregnancy and excessive weight gain will lead to reduced tone of the sphincter in the lower oesophagus, as well as increase the pressure inside the abdomen, thus helping to push stomach content and acid up into the oesophagus.

No wonder about a quarter of all pregnant women suffer with heartburn.

As mentioned before, consumption of a heavy meal, or certain types of foods and lifestyle could also contribute as a cause of heartburn .

Types of Heartburn

Different people suffer different degree of this problem. For some, heartburn could occur once a while and far in between. For others, it could occur frequently after a few days of respite, and for yet some others, it is almost a continuous chronic heartburn

Conditions That Worsens Heartburn

Heartburn is worsened by the following conditions:

  • Pregnancy

  • Weight gain or obesity

  • Smoking

  • Excess alcohol use

  • Consumption of large meals at a time

  • Presence of Haitus hernia

  • Some medications like nitrates, nifedipine,

  • A list of Foods that cause heartburn

We shall next be discussing foods that causes heartburn, signs and symptoms of heartburn, treatment, heartburn medications and more.

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