Why Heartburn Burns in the Chest
It might be called heartburn, but this type of searing pain and discomfort has nothing to do with your heart. Heartburn is a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. This occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach. Since the esophagus runs directly behind the heart, the pain of heartburn can feel like it’s radiating from your heart. It’s actually quite common for people to mistake heartburn for a heart attack or similar cardiac event.
This tutorial will teach you more about the symptoms of GERD, the damage it can cause, and how popular treatments work.
Why GERD Hurts
Heartburn is caused when the lower esophageal sphincter—a ring-like muscle that allows food and fluids into in the stomach—doesn’t close properly. This allows stomach contents, namely harmful stomach acid, to flow back up into the esophagus, which causes the searing pain of heartburn.
While your stomach has a protective lining that allows it to hold the digestive enzymes and acids it needs in order to break down food, your esophagus does not. This means when stomach acid reaches your esophagus, it’s not only painful, but can also cause long-term damage.
When the esophagus is repeatedly exposed to contents from the stomach, its lining can blister and scar. Over time, this damages the esophageal lining so much that it changes and becomes similar to the stomach lining. This condition is known as Barrett’s esophagus, a disease whose symptoms are indistinguishable from other digestive disorders.
The real danger with Barrett’s esophagus is that it can lead to dysplasia, or abnormal development of cells. This can ultimately lead to the formation of cancer cells in the esophagus, which require surgery and other invasive techniques to remove. While treatments for GERD can help prevent Barrett’s esophagus, none can reverse the damage caused by dysplasia.
Weight and GERD
You may think that spare tire is only an issue when you go to the beach, but your gut can make GERD symptoms worse. Excess belly fat can create extra pressure on your stomach, especially while lying down, which forces acidic contents out of your stomach and into your esophagus. The more you’re packing around your waist, the more likely it is that you’ll experience heartburn.
So if you need another reason to lose a few pounds, let your heartburn be your guide. If preventing GERD isn’t enough of a reason to stay in shape, consider this: obesity is also linked to a host of other health problems, including diabetes, heart attack, sleep apnea, fatty liver disease, and stroke, to name a few.
A simple base can control the acid in your stomach. That’s what antacids are, chemically speaking, and that’s exactly how they neutralize excess stomach acid. The average stomach has a ph balance of about 2 or 3. When those numbers drop, it indicates higher acid content in the stomach, and that’s when the trouble begins. Antacids typically bring your stomach contents back up to a 3 or 4.
Antacids are the leading remedy for heartburn and other stomach problems because they work quickly at combating symptoms like heartburn. They are available in various forms, while over-the-counter liquids and chewable tablets are the most common.
Proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) are a class of drugs that lower the acidity level in your stomach. They do this by reducing the amount of acid produced by gastric acid secreting cells in your stomach. Reducing this output can help ulcers and other damage in your stomach, esophagus, and duodenum heal properly.
Over-the-counter PPIs include Prilosec, Prevacid, and Nexium, among other brands. All are essentially the same and no research has shown that one works better than the other. Like most drugs, PPIs may have side effects that are easily tolerated, such as nausea or headaches. However, long-term or high-dose treatments can cause bone thinning. Talk to your doctor about the potential side effects of using PPIs on a regular basis.
More GERD Resources
While GERD can seem annoying, there are many treatment options available for people looking to improve their situation. Remember: heartburn is more than just a symptom—it's the cause to a larger problem. Talk to your doctor about how to best fight your GERD symptoms.