It’s not uncommon for people to have heartburn. The American College of Gastroenterology estimates that as many as 60 million Americans experience occasional heartburn, and more than 15 million Americans experience heartburn symptoms every day. For some people, this means chasing their double cheeseburger with a handful of antacids. For them, this is as normal as eating fries with a burger, and they don’t give much thought to the fact that over the years they’ve been taking more antacids more frequently to cope with heartburn.
While you should tell your doctor if you start experiencing heartburn, mild or occasional heartburn isn’t necessarily cause for alarm. But that doesn’t mean that heartburn is always harmless. Frequent or severe heartburn can be unpleasant, but it could also indicate a more serious problem. So when do you need to see a specialist for heartburn?
What is heartburn?
The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is a band of muscles located where the esophagus meets the stomach. The LES is acts as a valve which lets food into the stomach and keeps stomach acid from flowing up into the esophagus. If the lower esophageal sphincter is not functioning properly — opening too often, or not closing tightly enough — stomach acid will flow into the esophagus.
The stomach has a protective lining, but the tissue in the esophagus is sensitive to stomach acid. The pain that’s felt when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus is known as heartburn.
What causes heartburn?
The main cause of heartburn is an LES that does not work properly. There are a number of other factors that can contribute to heartburn, however. Overeating and pressure in the stomach facilitate heartburn, as do certain foods. Some foods such as chocolate or coffee will relax the lower esophageal sphincter, while other foods such as greasy fries or burgers are high in fats and oils, can also lead to heartburn. Other factors like a lack of sleep, high levels of stress, and smoking can also contribute to heartburn.
What you can do to control heartburn?
The aforementioned ritual of ordering food with a side of antacids is a common way that people handle heartburn, but it’s not an effective way to prevent it. Changing your diet to eat healthier foods, and avoid foods that trigger heartburn is a good place to start. Exercising, getting plenty of sleep, avoiding stress, and not smoking are other things that you can do to help prevent heartburn. Of course, the best way to handle your heartburn is by seeking the help of a knowledgeable medical professional.
When do you need to see a specialist for your heartburn?
People sometimes think that antacids can solve the problem, but they often just delay addressing the issue. If your heartburn gets more severe and more frequent, if it causes vomiting, or is accompanied by extreme stomach pain or severe weight loss, if it causes extreme discomfort, or if it gets in the way of your daily life, it’s time to see a specialist.
Don’t wait until your heartburn is so severe that it causes problems, however. The sooner you seek help, the better off you will be. Contact your primary care physician if you start feeling any concerns about your heartburn.