Heartburn, the burning sensation in the chest and throat that’s associated with stomach acid backing up, is triggered by stomach acid that has nowhere else to go. Common triggers include carbonated drinks (although alcoholic beverages are not the only culprit), certain foods (such as garlic and onions), mucous from the mouth and some emotions such as anxiety or depression. Heartburn can occur at any time, but is most common after meals. It also occurs more often after people have gone to sleep. People who lie down immediately after eating are particularly at higher risk for heartburn because gravity assists the gastric acid back up into the esophagus.
Mild heartburn is quite common. But if you get more frequent and more intense heartburn, it could be an indication of a more serious chronic acid reflux disorder known as GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease. Heartburn which just feels like burning, a tightness in the chest, difficulty swallowing, pain or pressure behind the breastbone or chest can be the result of inflammation of the esophagus caused by stomach acid backing up. Heartburn which burns and feels like liquid is passing through the throat can be a sign of Barrett’s esophagus, a genetic condition which predisposes people to developing esophageal cancer.
Treatment of heartburn depends on how far along the condition has progressed. If the problem is only occasional, a variety of lifestyle and dietary changes can help ease the symptoms. In the case of Barrett’s esophagus, or GERD, dietary modifications, medications, and sometimes surgery may be recommended to remove the cause of the problem. And antacids may be recommended for those with occasional heartburn.
Chest discomfort is one of the first signs that heartburn is happening. The chest begins to burn or “bursts” with a mild to painful burning feeling. Sometimes the burning feeling can extend to the neck and jaw, resulting in pain or a sensation that something is stuck in the throat. Often a person will feel a burning feeling right after they’ve eaten a meal, but if this persists, it’s important to seek immediate medical attention.
Frequent heartburn often results from acid reflux, which occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter – a band of muscular valve at the base of the stomach that holds back food and acid from the stomach – becomes damaged or weakened. This enlargement of the valve causes the stomach to release acid, thus causing heartburn and discomfort. It’s important to note that GERD is also accompanied by regurgitation, which means the material that’s pushed back up into the esophagus comes in the form of regurgitated acid. This can occur both inside and outside of the esophagus and can lead to damage and erosion of the esophageal lining.
Esophagitis, a condition that involves the inflammation of the esophageal lining, can also occur with heartburn. This occurs when stomach acids travel up into the mouth and into the pharynx. While this condition isn’t serious, it can lead to a buildup of scar tissue that may restrict the passage of food and prevent nutrients from reaching the stomach. People suffering from esophagitis or hiatal hernia will often experience symptoms such as chest pain and difficulty swallowing. If you experience any of these symptoms, speak with your doctor immediately.