Unlike the name, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. Heartburn, formally known as acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), occurs when stomach contents and acid creep up into the esophagus. The usual cause of true heart pain, due to heart attacks or angina, is the lack of blood in the arteries that feed the heart muscle.
Signs of acid reflux include searing heartburn, sour-tasting acid up in your throat, hoarseness, and a cough. There’s often confusion between reflux and heart pain. People will visit a hospital complaining of chest pain, but oftentimes more than half don’t actually have chest or heart-related problems. In fact, 60% actually have heartburn.
“Patients will come see me and explain they get a burning feeling all the time and a sour taste in the throat,” says Dr. Francis Teng, MountainView Hospital general surgeon. “Patients will go to the ER feeling chest pain, and their problem will be commonly mistaken to be a heart attack or gallstones instead of reflux.”
The reason for confusing reflux with chest or heart pain is due to the nerves registering problems with the heart, stomach and even the gall bladder as “chest pain.” The nerves that sense pain in the heart and along the digestive tract aren’t very accurate at pinpointing the source of the pain.
Common hints of acid reflux and GERD are:
- Burning pain
- Occurs after eating, especially if the meal was large, fatty or spicy
- May move up toward the throat
- Worse when lying down or bending over
- Acidic or bitter taste in your mouth
- Usually relieved by antacids
- Hoarseness in voice
If you experience any of these regularly – at least twice a week – talk to your healthcare provider. If your chest pain is more severe or feels different than usual, especially if you’re a woman or the pain was brought on by exercise, call 911 or get emergency help without delay. Be extra cautious if you have risk factors for heart disease, such as diabetes, smoking, high cholesterol or excess weight. Left untreated, acid reflux can damage your esophagus and potentially lead to life-threatening cancer.
“Long term damage of reflux/GERD can lead to severe damage to the esophagus. Continual damage that’s not treated can lead to precancerous conditions, also known as “Barrett’s” esophagus, and eventually progress to esophageal cancer,” explains Dr. Teng. “If damages aren’t treated sooner, they can eventually cause prolonged complications, poor quality of life, and risks to progression to esophageal cancer.”
You can follow these strategies to help get acid reflux or GERD under control.
- Say no to bubbles. Bubbles can carry acid up from the stomach. It’s best to remove seltzer, soda and any other forms of carbonation from your diet.
- Cut the fat. A low-fat diet can minimize acid reflux. Foods that are rich in fat take longer to digest, slowing down the process of emptying your stomach which creates more stomach acid. Stick to eating foods with lower fat content to help get your diet on the right track.
- Watch the caffeine. Caffeine can relax the lower esophageal sphincter, a valve designed to keep stomach content down, including gastric acid. Try to limit your caffeine intake to just one cup of coffee a day or less.
- Slim down. Unlike some of the other strategies that can be implemented immediately, weight loss is a long-term management solution. A study in the journal Obesity found that a structured weight-loss program led to complete relief of GERD symptoms in the majority of overweight/obese participants.
- Stop the cigarettes. Some evidence shows that getting out of the habit of smoking can improve acid reflux, especially when meds aren’t doing enough. A study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that quitting smoking was associated with significant relief from heartburn and acid regurgitation among normal-weight participants who took anti-reflux drugs at least weekly.
- See the doctor. If you are experiencing severe GERD symptoms and can’t find relief through medications or other lifestyle changes, please contact your physician or healthcare provider to discuss other options.
“I tell my patients, especially before surgery, to cut out coffee and caffeine, chocolates, and fatty foods. It’s best to avoid eating late at night, sleep with an elevated pillow, and lose weight,” says Dr. Teng. “I recommend patients get their problem fixed surgically rather than prolonging it with medications.”
Prolonging acid reflux can lead patients to also experience dysphagia or difficulty swallowing, esophageal ulcers, and severe scarring of the esophagus, known as a “stricture,” which will require esophagus stretching.
“I want patients to know that there is a surgical ‘fix’ or solution to their long-term problem which is usually temporarily treated with medications,” says Dr. Teng. “Patients need to get that second opinion and take control of their health. Whatever the treatment, my colleagues and I at MountainView are ready to fix the problem and the quality of life of our patients.”
At MountainView’s Heartburn & Reflux Center, we work with your physician to help determine the best treatment path for you. If surgical options are needed, MountainView offers an effective, minimally invasive surgical procedure to help treat severe acid reflux and GERD.
If you think you might have acid reflux or GERD, and want to find the right path to relief from reflux symptoms, visit MountainView-Hospital.com or call (702) 271-6453.
This content has been adapted from original content on the website of HCA partner sharecare.com.