Identifying heartburn symptoms and what they mean

Have you ever had a mild to intense pain that radiated from your stomach to your collarbone? Has it happened after eating, or when you try to lay down at night? Does it also come with a nasty taste at the back of your mouth? Does your stomach ever feel like a balloon, along with nausea and burning sensation that sits near the top? All of these are common symptoms that come along with the conditions known as heartburn and indigestion. There are also many other conditions that can mimic or include having heartburn. True heartburn is caused by an action called acid reflux. This is when stomach acid comes up through the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) and irritates the lining of the esophagus, causing a burning sensation. Inflammation is a part of the reaction and when the acid reflux is left untreated, it can lead to the lining being eroded and the formation of an ulcer. The only part of the digestive tract designed to handle the high concentration of acidity is the lower sections from the stomach down. Any sign of pain or discomfort should not be ignored, especially when it comes to digestion.

So, what are heartburn symptoms, and how are they different than regular indigestion?

When asking most medical professionals “what are the symptoms of heartburn?”, you are likely to get a rather general explanation. Heartburn itself, by most medical definitions, is simply: a sensation of pain that is centered behind, or in the area of the breastbone, and generally originating from the stomach. The pain from heartburn can often be mistaken with other conditions, in particular a heart attack, because the pain can radiate along the trunk and throat. The source of the pain for heartburn is the esophagus, which extends from the mouth to the stomach, but is surrounded by vital organs, which can also feel as if they are being affected by the radiating pain.

Indigestion is a general term that can be used to refer to multiple digestive issues. These other issues include: heartburn, nausea, vomiting, the taste of acid at the back of the throat, audible gurgling that can be felt in the stomach, bloating or full sensations, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, or even just a general sense of discomfort in regards to some aspect of digestion.

It is not uncommon for people, when discussing the issue with a doctor or healthcare professional, to refer to heartburn as simply indigestion. However, this is a label that prompts a lot of further inquiry to pinpoint what area of the digestive tract is having problems. When diagnosing heartburn, the main issue they will be looking for is acid reflux. Depending on the frequency and severity, a diagnosis of GERD may be given. GastroEsophogeal Reflux Disease is a commonly diagnosed condition, with 60% of the world’s population experiencing at least, a mild episode of it at some point during each year. Of those, 20% will have recurring issues with GERD at least once a week or more. It is in part due to its prevalence that people will often refer to heartburn caused by GERD as indigestion.

Common dietary reasons to have heartburn symptoms.

While stomach acid is the main cause of heartburn, there are other things that can induce similar sensations. Typically, it does begin with some source of irritation, either stomach acid at one point created at an initially agitated point, but then, another irritating substance followed. Tomato products, such as sauce, are high in acidity and can refresh previous irritation, or sometimes, even cause the acid to reflux. For some people, heartburn and indigestion only arise after certain foods are eaten. If you notice a recurring burning sensation, especially if its accompanied by a mild sense of nausea, then it is likely the food and nothing else. Many people have things such as spicy foods, tomato-based dishes, or really rich dishes that tend to be problematic. If cutting them out is not an acceptable solution, there are several antacid that can be taken ahead of time to help curb the reflux and indigestion before it starts. Another thing that can be done is to be sure to wash the meal down with plenty of water. It is a simple trick to help keep the irritating substances moving down out of the esophagus, as well as, washing down any acid that creeps up in protest. Another cause, asides food triggers, is eating any food too quickly. Each time you swallow, the LES opens up to allow the food and liquid to travel into the stomach. If you gulp down stuff quickly, the rapid opening and closing of the LES can fail to keep the churning stomach acid inside. If you’ve ever rapidly eaten anything, especially for young kids, the sensation can be described as a sharp, stabbing pain that is often followed by a belly ache.

Non dietary causes for heartburn or other indigestion issues.

At times, it has less to do with what you normally eat and drink, but more to do with other lifestyle factors. Tight garments, such as corsets and girdles, or even braces, can put pressure on the stomach. Most people can relate to how uncomfortable it is for pressure to be applied to a full stomach, and this is for a good reason. The pressure can distort its contours and even interfere with the LES staying closed, which means the stomach acidic contents can spill up into the esophagus.

Asides from restrictive garments, or even laying on the stomach, being overweight or pregnant can also put excess pressure on the stomach. Excess pounds, especially over the abdomen and chest can put constant pressure on the stomach and make GERD issues worse. A fetus tends to push and cramp many internal organs, and tends to cause a lot of indigestion problems. Typically, the easiest ways to help ease the problem, aside from taking medications to help curb the acid and paying mind to diet, is to make other lifestyle changes. Wearing different garments and working to trim back to a healthier weight are two elements that can be controlled, whereas pregnancy-related indigestion issues tend to resolve within the postpartum period. If there are any signs of heartburn, then it is a good indication that something needs to change.

Stress and certain medications can also cause indigestion issues.

Stress can affect the body in different ways, asides from the obvious emotional impact it can have, it can be extremely detrimental to the digestive tract. The rather accurate portrayal in movies and television, of a stressed-out character having to take stomach medication almost constantly is not overly exaggerated. Stress can lead to increased acid production in the stomach, which can tumble uphill and down, creating a chain of negative effects. In combination with the ability to kill an appetite at the same time, it can create a rather agitated bag of acid. When stress is an underlying factor to indigestion issues, the stomach and abdomen tend to have the ‘tied into knots’ feeling. Trying to get to the root of the stress, as well as, developing better coping mechanisms can help eliminate stress-related indigestion, including heartburn.

When stress is not the problem, nor any other lifestyle or dietary explanation is present, the culprit for indigestion issues, including heartburn, can be medication. NSAIDS or Non Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen, can be harsh on the stomach and agitate it during digestion. It is why most doctors recommend eating a snack with it, or to try a milder alternative, such as acetaminophen. There are a lot of medications and classes of medications that are well known for being irritating to the stomach, such as medications for bone loss and certain classes of antibiotics. Typically, if a bottle comes with a take food warning, then most likely, it can potentially cause some discomfort if taken on an empty stomach. There are even blood pressure and anti-anxiety medications that can cause the stomach to churn up with excess acid.

Stomach pain, classic heartburn pain, and nausea are the typical symptoms that a medication is causing the heartburn and other indigestion issues. It is important to discuss all your medications with your doctors and pharmacist to help determine if something you are on is causing more troubles than desires. Often times, between your team of healthcare professionals, a solution can be found to help either take better precautions to prevent the indigestion issues, or to find an alternative medication that can be given to avoid digestive sensitivities. It is always important when starting a new medication to take note of any digestive changes that occur and to discuss them with your doctor. In rare instances, the heartburn symptoms can be a sign of something more serious than a reaction to medication, or GERD.