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Get Help for Heartburn

If the pain in your chest is becoming unbearable, turn to the experts at the NCH Gastroenterology Center for help. Click here to learn more.

Burning Problem

If left untreated, chronic acid reflux can do untold damage

We've all felt the burn from backed-up stomach acid. Sometimes the culprit is simply a spicy meal too close to bedtime. (Hey, you're not in college anymore, right?)

But if you fight heartburn more than twice a week, you may have a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. If left unchecked, GERD is no good. Here's what you need to know.

Causes

When you eat, food travels from your mouth through the esophagus to the stomach. A "gate-like" valve is supposed to close when food enters the stomach. When this valve doesn't close, stomach acid escapes and triggers the flame-throwing sensation known as heartburn.

While the causes for chronic heartburn aren't clear, anatomical abnormalities, such as a hiatal hernia, may contribute, as well as pregnancy, obesity and smoking.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, these foods worsen reflux:

  • Citrus
  • Chocolate
  • Caffeinated or alcoholic drinks
  • Fatty and fried foods
  • Garlic and onions
  • Mint flavorings
  • Spicy foods
  • Pizza, salsa and spaghetti sauce

Treatments

For occasional heartburn sufferers, an over-the-counter antacid can offer quick relief.

Those with GERD may need to make lifestyle changes and take medicines that cause the stomach to produce less acid. In other cases, surgery or endoscopic treatments may strengthen the valve or muscles that keep food and acid from backing up into the esophagus.

Whatever you do, don't ignore GERD. Sometimes, stomach acid damages the lining of the esophagus and leads to a pre-cancerous condition called Barrett's esophagus.

What You Can Do

To learn more about heartburn and GERD, make an appointment with a gastroenterologist. Your doctor can address these questions and more:

  • When do heartburn symptoms require treatment?
  • What is endoscopy and when should it be done?
  • What is the relationship between heartburn, Barrett's esophagus and esophageal cancer?

To find a gastroenterologist at NCH, click here.

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Last Updated 04/10/2009