Heartburn is a very unpleasant feeling that is characterized as a burning pain in your chest area. Severe heartburn can make you feel nauseous and want to vomit.
The pain is usually worse after eating when lying down or in a bending position. Spicy foods, citrus products, tomato products, fried and fatty foods, and caffeinated drinks can trigger heartburn symptoms.
The occasional heartburn is normal, especially if you can link it to the food you recently ate. It can be effectively managed by you without the need for a doctor.
However, the tricky thing about heartburn symptoms is that they are similar to those of other conditions, including a heart attack. So, what can heartburn symptoms indicate, and when do you need to seek help?
Heartburn Warning Signs
Symptoms of heartburn include a burning sensation in the chest and a bitter, acidic taste. It occurs when stomach acid mistakenly flows upward past the sphincter and into the esophagus, thereby giving you that unpleasant taste in your mouth.
Occasional mild heartburn is probably nothing to worry about unless it is accompanied by other unusual symptoms. However, frequent heartburn that interferes with your work, sleep, and daily activities needs to be checked by a physician, because it may indicate one of the following conditions:
GI Tract Issue
If you experience heartburn every week and symptoms persist even after taking medication, or if it negatively impacts your sense of taste and has led to poor appetite and weight loss, you may actually have an upper GI tract disorder. This cannot be self-diagnosed but requires a medical evaluation.
Frequent heartburn is one of the symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This can also be indicated by waking up with a bad taste in your mouth or a sore throat every morning.
In a normal functioning GI tract, the stomach acids do not flow back into the esophagus because the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) closes after food enters the stomach. With GERD, your sphincter is weakened and is malfunctioning, which allows the backing up of the very strong stomach acids into your esophagus.
GERD requires medication or, in severe cases, surgery. This may be necessary in order to prevent the stomach acids from damaging your esophagus and leading to cancer.
A person who has gallstones may exhibit symptoms that mimic heartburn. Your gallbladder produces bile – as do your liver and pancreas – to break down fats in the food you eat. However, if you consume more fatty foods at a faster rate than your gallbladder, liver, and pancreas can produce the necessary bile to break them down, cholesterol deposits can harden – forming gallstones.
The reason why this condition can be confused with heartburn is that gallstones can make the upper-right side of your abdomen hurt. The pain is characterized as dull, sharp, or cramping pain that occurs after eating. Persistent pain caused by gallstones may require surgery to remove the gallbladder.
GERD that is left untreated can damage the esophagus and lead to the development of Barrett’s esophagus. This is when the chemistry of the esophagus has changed to be more like the lining of the intestines due to intestinal metaplasia.
Barrett’s esophagus requires medical attention because it can lead to esophageal cancer. Treatment usually involves HALO radiofrequency ablation (RFA), in which the damaged cells in the esophagus are removed, and healthy cells can then grow in their place.
Heartburn Center in Central Texas
At Austin Gastroenterology, our team of gastroenterologists specializes in the treatment of upper GI tract and lower GI tract disorders, including heartburn and related conditions. We will help relieve your heartburn symptoms and prevent the development of a more serious condition.