Heartburn is a very common problem in the United States. It is estimated that one in ten Americans experience the symptoms of heartburn at least one time per week. Some of the symptoms of heartburn include difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, frequently clearing the throat, chest pain, burning in the chest and throat, the sensation of something stuck in your throat, and a sour or bitter taste in your mouth.
Heartburn, or acid reflux, is caused by stomach acid splattering out of the stomach into the esophagus. There is a muscle at the end of the esophagus (lower esophageal sphincter) that controls the flow of material into and back out of the stomach. If the muscle does not close completely or opens too often, this will allow the acid to leak out into the esophagus causing heartburn. Usually, this acid reflux is not a serious problem, but if it becomes a long-term, untreated problem known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) it can lead to serious problems. Scarring of the esophagus may result in narrowing (stricture) of the esophagus with worsening in swallowing and possible cancer.
There are certain types of foods that can make your acid reflux worse: citrus, chocolate, caffeine, fried foods, alcohol, tomatoes, spearmint, and peppermint. Obesity and pregnancy are also common causes of acid reflux. If you notice some of the symptoms of acid reflux you could try diet modification, weight loss, over-the-counter antacids (Maalox, Mylanta, Tums), and over-the-counter heartburn medication (Tagamet, Axid, Zantac, Prilosec). You should also try to avoid heavy lifting and frequently bending over. The elevation of the head of the bed at night is also helpful.
If none of these simple remedies mentioned help you, then you should immediately contact your physician. There is a complete set of tests including a physical exam that can be done to evaluate this problem. These include upper endoscopy, esophageal pH testing, and esophageal manometry. Depending on what your doctor finds, he/she will treat you with diet modification and possible prescription medications (Nexium, Protonix, Prevacid, etc). Lifestyle changes will also need to be discussed. If all of this fails then a surgical option is a last resort to control the acid reflux. There are now endoscopic techniques to tighten the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) and thereby prevent acid splashing into the esophagus.
Please remember that most cases of acid reflux are easily treated with diet modification and lifestyle changes and possible medications. Don’t hesitate to call your doctor if you have any questions or concerns.