According to the American College of Gastroenterology, among 60 million American adults suffer from heartburn, an average of 15 million Americans experience heartburn daily. Most of these people have accepted the fact that heartburn is a part of their daily lives, to the point of having found ways of withstanding the pain. While experiencing heartburn every once in a while is quite normal, chronic heartburn is definitely not. If it is ignored, it can lead to serious health problems.
What Makes Heartburn Become Chronic
If you experience heartburn more frequently and longer than once a month, then your heartburn is most likely caused by GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disease.
GERD occurs when your lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the valve which ensures that your stomach acid isn’t released randomly and freely from the stomach, fails to act properly. The LES, which prevents the flow of stomach acid and normally has a tight grip on your stomach, no longer performs such functions.
When you experience regular heartburn, it is only triggered by certain causes while the LES is perfectly fine. Heartburn becomes chronic when the LES, which is supposed to protect your esophagus from stomach acid, fails to perform altogether. Because your LES no longer tightens its grip on your stomach, stomach acid is released at a much more frequent rate than before.
Symptoms of Chronic Heartburn
The most telling symptom of chronic heartburn is its frequency. If you experience pain below the breastbone up to the throat almost daily, then it’s probably GERD. Like regular heartburn, you should be wary about confusing it for a heart attack. Although you can easily distinguish one from the other, seeking medical attention is still better.
Aside from frequency of heartburn, there are other symptoms associated with chronic heartburn:
- Difficulty in swallowing
- Hoarseness and irritation of the throat, especially in the morning
- A chronic cough
- A dry Cough
- Bad breath
- Abdominal pain
- For infants, spitting up and vomiting
Causes of Chronic Heartburn
Regular heartburn is usually caused by one’s eating habits, diet, or lifestyle. If you overate or slept right after eating, you might experience heartburn that will eventually pass after a short while. The same goes for smoking and drinking alcohol. In such cases, acute heartburn may be soothed after taking over-the-counter medication or trying a quick natural remedy.
The causes of chronic heartburn or GERD are altogether different.
It is caused by a variety of conditions that paves the way for your LES to perform defectively, such as:
- Hiatal hernia– hiatal hernia is a condition where the diaphragm has an opening, allowing the stomach to protrude through that hole. If the cavity is large enough, stomach acid will be released into the esophagus and cause frequent heartburn.
- Pregnancy– The increased production of progesterone during pregnancy causes the LES to relax, allowing stomach acid to be released into the esophagus.
- Peptic ulcer– the Peptic ulcer is characterized by sores along the stomach lining, which is supposed to act as a protective shield for your stomach. These sores remove such protection, allowing the frequent release of stomach acid.
- Gastroparesis– This condition is otherwise known as delayed stomach emptying, and occurs when the stomach takes too long to transfer food to the small intestines. Because the muscle contractions are delayed and take longer than necessary, stomach acid is pushed upward into the esophagus.
What to do if you have chronic heartburn
Normal heartburn can usually be treated by drinking medication. However, chronic heartburn is an altogether different matter. Because its underlying causes are more or less permanent or long-term, over-the-counter antacids will most likely be ineffective.
What you have to do if you have chronic heartburn can be simplified in a few steps:
- Seek medical advice.
- Have yourself diagnosed.
- Undergo natural or surgical treatment.
When experiencing chronic heartburn, you should seek expert medical advice. A gastroenterologist, a specialist in the treatment of diseases related to stomachs and intestines, will know what he or she is talking about. If you’re not satisfied, you can always ask for a second opinion.
More often than not, you will be diagnosed. One way of diagnosing is by undergoing a scope test. In such a test, a scope with a camera will pass through your esophagus and into your stomach. Another test is the pill cam, where you will swallow a tiny camera that will send photos of your digestive tract, especially your esophagus. This is a more advanced, more expensive, and definitely less intrusive method. Basically, both tests will try to find out if your esophagus is in fine condition or if you have Barrett’s Esophagus.
Chronic heartburn, or GERD, may lead to Barrett’s Esophagus, also called Barrett’s Syndrome. This happens when the cells that can cause cancer replace the normal cells in the esophageal lining. Although the leading symptom of Barrett’s Esophagus is frequent and long heartburn, other symptoms include dysphagia or having trouble swallowing, vomiting blood, pain below the breastbone where the stomach and the esophagus meet, and weight loss because of difficulty in eating. In some cases, a person who has Barrett’s Esophagus may not even experience the symptoms of heartburn at all.
When the cells of your esophagus are constantly exposed to stomach acid, they may be replaced by premalignant cells and ultimately result in Barrett’s Esophagus. The relationship between chronic heartburn and Barrett’s Esophagus is positive, in that having chronic heartburn may result in Barrett’s Esophagus. At the same time, having Barrett’s Esophagus may result in chronic heartburn.
As a premalignant condition, Barrett’s Esophagus can lead to Esophageal Cancer. Considered as one of the increasingly common cancers in the US, only 16 percent of esophageal cancer patients are expected to survive in five years. Such is why early diagnosis for this type of cancer is very crucial.
When seeking medical advice, make sure that you sort out your options. There are plenty of remedies, from natural to surgical. Natural remedies are ideal, but you will always have to follow through and see if they’re working.
If the problem is immediate and may very well lead to serious health conditions like esophageal cancer, you may want to undergo surgery. According to Dr. Husted, a surgeon and clinical instructor of the UC College of Medicine, “The choice to have surgery often comes down to a matter of convenience or cancer prevention.” Surgery, however, should be your resort only when your doctor thinks it is necessary and if natural remedies can no longer work.
Natural Remedies for Chronic Heartburn
Basically, what you need to do is to make sure that you’re lower esophageal remain under control. In doing so, you will have to undergo lifestyle changes, as prescribed by your gastroenterologist.
Your current diet and lifestyle may worsen acid reflux and increase the frequency of heartburn. Even if your heartburn is primarily caused by a pregnancy or a hiatal hernia, you still should stay away from unhealthy habits like smoking or sleeping right after eating. They may not be the proximate cause of your chronic heartburn, but they will definitely add insult to injury.
Below are some natural remedies and changes in your lifestyle that you can do to prevent chronic heartburn.
- One of the most important lifestyle changes you should do is to stop smoking or drinking alcohol. With its destructive effects that extend well beyond chronic heartburn, smoking and excessive drinking alcohol must certainly be eliminated from your lifestyle.
- For people with Gastroparesis, you may want to frequently eat smaller meals throughout the day. This will help deal with the frequent contractions of your stomach and small intestines.
- Obesity is a contributing factor to GERD, so losing weight in a healthy way will certainly help. You should stay away from crash diets because they will only worsen your chronic heartburn.
- Your sleeping position may be the cause behind your GERD. When sleeping raise the pillow on your head by about 6 to 8 inches when lying down. Doing so will ensure that the stomach acid doesn’t go up to your esophagus into your throat.
- If you have a hiatal hernia, you may want to do yoga exercises or refrain from taking medications that can worsen your condition. This includes iron supplements, potassium supplements, and antibiotics. Consult with your doctor to find out which drugs you shouldn’t take.
- You should most certainly stay away from medications that essentially loosen the LES even more, such as tranquilizers, sedatives, anticholinergic drugs, and anti-depressants.
Chronic heartburn doesn’t have to lead to serious health conditions. If detected and addressed early, you can simply change your lifestyle and bid heartburn goodbye.