Chest Pain

  • Medical Author:
    Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

    Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  • Medical Editor: Daniel Lee Kulick, MD, FACC, FSCAI
    Daniel Lee Kulick, MD, FACC, FSCAI

    Daniel Lee Kulick, MD, FACC, FSCAI

    Dr. Kulick received his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Southern California, School of Medicine. He performed his residency in internal medicine at the Harbor-University of California Los Angeles Medical Center and a fellowship in the section of cardiology at the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center. He is board certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiology.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Quick GuideHeart Disease Pictures Slideshow: Coronary Artery Disease

Heart Disease Pictures Slideshow: Coronary Artery Disease

Esophagus and reflux esophagitis

The esophagus is a muscular tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is a specialized band of muscle at the lower end of the esophagus that functions as a valve to keep stomach contents from spilling back into the esophagus. Should that valve fail, stomach contents, including acidic digestive juices, can reflux back and irritate the lining of the esophagus. While the stomach has a protective barrier lining to protect it from normal digestive juices, this protection is missing in the esophagus.

Reflux esophagitis (also referred to as GERD, gastroesophageal reflux disease) can present with burning chest and upper abdominal pain that radiates to the throat and may be associated with a sour taste in the back of the throat called waterbrash. It may present after meals or at bedtime when the patient lies flat. There can be significant spasm of the esophageal muscles, and the pain can be intense. The pain of reflux esophagitis can be mistaken for angina, and vice versa.

The physical examination is usually not helpful, and a clinical diagnosis is often made without further testing. Endoscopy may be performed to look at the lining of the esophagus and stomach. When symptoms are long-standing, they may be associated with, or cause, precancerous changes in the cells lining the lower esophagus. Manometry can be done to measure pressure changes in the esophagus and stomach to decide whether the LES is working appropriately. Barium swallow or gastrograph with fluoroscopy is a type of X-ray where the swallowing patterns of the esophagus can be evaluated.

Treatment for reflux esophagitis includes:

  • Dietary and lifestyle changes to limit the amount of acid that can backsplash from the stomach into the esophagus.
  • Elevating the head of the bed allows gravity to keep acid from refluxing.
  • Smaller meal sizes can limit stomach distention.
  • Caffeine, alcohol, anti-inflammatory medications, and smoking are irritants to the lining of the stomach and esophagus and should be avoided.
  • Acid blockers like omeprazole (Prilosec) or lansoprazole (Prevacid) can decrease the amount of stomach acid that is produced, and antacids like Maalox or Mylanta can help bind excess acid.

The complications of acid reflux depend upon its severity and its duration. Chronic reflux can cause changes in the lining of the esophagus (Barrett's esophagus) which may lead to cancer. Reflux may also bring acid contents into the back of the mouth into the larynx (voice box) and cause hoarseness or recurrent cough. Aspiration pneumonia can be caused by acid and food particles inhaled into the lung. For more, please read the GERD article.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/2/2015

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