Heartburn occurs when stomach acids flow back up into the esophagus and can cause a burning, uncomfortable feeling in the chest, just behind the breastbone.
Occasional heartburn is usually not a cause for concern and can be managed with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications. However, frequent heartburn that occurs every day may be a sign of something more serious.
Learn about what causes frequent heartburn and what may be triggering the discomfort.
What causes frequent heartburn?
Normally when we swallow, a band of muscle around the bottom part of the esophagus (lower esophageal sphincter) relaxes to allow food and liquid to flow down into the stomach for digestion. The muscle tightens again to prevent the backflow of stomach contents into the esophagus.
If something causes the lower esophageal sphincter to relax abnormally or become weak, stomach acids can flow back up into the esophagus (acid reflux) and cause heartburn.
Triggers that can lead to frequent heartburn may include:
- Foods and drinks: Certain foods and drinks can cause heartburn, such as:
- Body positioning: Acid reflux is often worse when lying down or bending over.
- Pressure: Anything that increases the pressure on the stomach such as lifting, straining, coughing, tight clothing, obesity, and pregnancy can trigger heartburn.
- Medical conditions: Certain medical conditions such as hiatal hernia, diabetes, and many autoimmune diseases (CREST syndrome and scleroderma) can cause heartburn.
- Medications: Heartburn can be a side effect of some prescription medications including blood pressure and heart medications and the asthma drug theophylline.
What are the symptoms of heartburn?
Symptoms of heartburn include:
- Burning sensation in the chest
- Chest pain
- Foul taste in the mouth
- Difficulty swallowing
- Feeling of a lump in the throat
What are complications of frequent heartburn?
Possible complications of frequent heartburn include:
- Esophageal stricture (abnormal narrowing of the esophagus)
- Vomiting blood
- Blood in stools
- Hoarseness, chronic cough, sore throat, or tooth damage
- Thickened or damaged esophagus that is vulnerable to cancer
What can relieve and prevent heartburn?
For mild symptoms, simple lifestyle modifications and medications may be enough to manage the discomfort. Other treatment options include acid blockers and even surgery.
In the majority of cases, taking the following precautions can offer relief from heartburn and prevent it from turning into a more serious problem:
- Following a diet that limits spicy and fatty foods
- Eating smaller more frequent meals rather than 2-3 large meals
- Avoiding eating 2-3 hours before bedtime
- Elevating the head of your bed prior to lying down
- Avoiding wearing tight-fitting clothes
- Avoiding heavy lifting and straining
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Exercising regularly
- Avoiding caffeine and alcohol
- Quitting smoking
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