Heartburn can be a natural result of age, dietary habits and excessive weight and can sometimes be unbearable, but it doesn’t have to be so painful all the time. An average of 10 million Americans suffer from its symptoms on a daily basis, and though the strains of the symptoms can vary, it’s rarely a problem that can’t be dealt with one way or another.
A natural side effect of esophogial weakening and the normal process of acid reflux, heartburn happens when the body is aggravated by the foods it is trying to digest for a number of reasons. But acid reflux itself is a standard part of the body’s operation.
“Acid reflux is normal physiology, except that when there is excessive or frequent acid reflux that causes irritation and inflammation of the lower esophagus, leading to symptoms such as heartburn or painful swallowing,” says Dr. Scott Keller, a physician of family medicine with St. John Medical Center in Tulsa.
According to Keller, the severity of symptoms can vary from person to person, and there may be a good reason behind one’s frequent heartburn.
“Patients that have symptoms two to three times a week fall into the category of GERD, short for gastroesophageal reflux disease, and patients with GERD can be classified as mild, moderate or severe.”
Those suffering from symptoms on the mild side of the spectrum can treat their symptoms with over-the-counter antacids such as Pepcid, Xantac and Prilosec. Those with moderate or severe disease could to be treated with intermittent use of other medicines such as Prevacid, and Protonix.
Dr. Ashley Muckala with Integris Family Care in Edmond also noted that over-the-counter remedies such as Tums and Rolaids can assist with managing symptoms by using calcium to soothe the stomach, alongside other methods of management.
“Symptoms are more common as one gets older, which probably relates to weakening of the lower esophogial sphincter (LES),” says Keller. When the LES is weakened, the body becomes less able to prevent food from leaking backwards from the stomach into the esophagus itself, thereby causing the painful symptoms of heartburn for millions every day.
“I believe that most patients can be treated with lifestyle and dietary modification,” says Keller. Such modifications would include avoiding lying down after meals, avoiding meals three hours before sleep to allow time for the food to properly digest, elevating the head during sleep to keep food and acid from falling back into the esophagus where it would cause pain, avoiding tight-fitting garments, losing weight and avoiding fatty foods, spicy foods or acidic foods like cola, chocolate, red wine and orange juice.
Since acid reflux is a normal bodily function that everybody goes through, treatment is not meant to eliminate the process, but rather make that process less painful for those who suffer from heartburn as a result of it.
“Treatment doesn’t change the frequency of reflux, but it does change the acidity,” Keller says.
He adds that moderate-to-severe heartburn can present as chest pain, making a diagnosis more difficult than expected due to the fact that similar symptoms also present with coronary heart disease. For this reason, many medications instruct users to follow an initial usage schedule of two weeks, to make sure that the symptoms of heartburn really are heartburn, rather than something that could be much more serious.