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When heartburn becomes something to worry about

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When heartburn becomes something to worry about


Occasional heartburn or reflux is not something to worry about. However, experts, warned that before individuals resort to taking antacids to get relief from heartburn, they must be properly accessed to rule out life-threatening conditions which give heartburn-like symptoms, report Sade Oguntola.


There is probably no person on earth who at one time or another, has not experienced an episode of heartburn, severe enough to require taking some antacid. For some people, all it takes is eating beans or going to bed on a very full stomach to get uncomfortable burning sensation creep into their throat or chest.

For many people that experience heartburn, taking antacid once the uncomfortable burning sensation comes up has become a norm, rather than seeking to find a lasting solution to this problem. At least, it is not seen as serious problem a that requires prompt medical attention because it cannot kill.

Heartburn is actually caused by problems with a valve between the oesophagus (food pipe) and the stomach, which allows the acid from the stomach to go back up into the throat.

Certainly, occasional heartburn also referred to as indigestion or acid regurgitation is not something to worry about. However, heartburn-like symptoms can be brought about by other diseases of the food pipe and heart, like cancers of the stomach or food pipe, angina and heart attack. Hence, it should not be dismissed so lightheartedly.

According to Dr Adegboyega Akere, a consultant gastroenterologist, University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, Oyo State, “heartburn, which simply means a discomfort in the chest region, could be caused by many things. Any disease in any of the organs in the chest region such as the heart, blood vessels, lungs and the food pipe, could cause pain or discomfort behind the breastbone. Of course, people would refer to such pain or discomfort as heartburn.”

But, “the most common condition that cause heartburn or is associated with heartburn is called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This is a condition in which acid in the stomach refluxes back into the food pipe. Since an acid is corrosive, it can cause damage to the lining of the food pipe, causing the pain, discomfort or peppery feeling that people normally talk about,” he explained.

Normally, the stomach lining is designed to handle this acid, but the wind pipe is not. The acid causes damage to the lining of the food pipe, causing a burning sensation. However, “when the heartburn is not treated, it can lead to what is called Barrett’s oesophagus. This occurs when the microscopic changes that occur in the lining of the wind pipe due to the continual exposure to acid make it to look more like the lining of the intestine. These changes, known as Barrett’s oesophagus, are associated with an increased risk of oesophageal cancer. It is a condition that can predispose to cancer.”

Yet, millions of people that suffer from heartburn often know nothing about the heightened long-term risks; instead, they casually chew away on antacids for months or even years.  “Unfortunately, this abnormal change in the lining of the wind pipe is far more likely to lead to oesophageal cancer. This type of cancer is also deadly, if it is not diagnosed and treated on time,” Dr Akere declared.

According to him, people with oesophageal cancer might experience difficulty in swallowing, which gets worse with each passing day. Initially, it might involve difficulty swallowing solid food and later liquid. Such a person might be losing weight because of difficulty in eating. The person might also experience a choking sensation and might be vomiting blood.

Worryingly, “ischaemic heart disease can also cause heartburn-like symptoms and when not diagnosed and attended to on time can be deadly. For instance, when the blood vessels that supply the heart are blocked, the person will have chest pain or discomfort, which will be like heartburn. Sometimes, this sort of pain will occur with an exertion, either an emotional or physical one, because the heart at that time would need to work more to pump blood. In addition, the burning pain may also arise as a result of less supply of oxygen and blood to the heart because of a blockage in the blood vessel supplying this organ. This can lead to sudden death.”

Nonetheless, other conditions that give heart-burn like symptoms, he stated included aortic dissertation, a condition in which there is a defect in aorta, the biggest blood vessel in the body that carries blood from the heart to other areas of the body.

Unfortunately, “heartburn is a common problem that many people, even in Nigeria, do not seek medical help for because they could easily work up to the chemist to buy antacids to relieve the discomfort,” Dr Akere stated.

But, “in some instances, what they assume to be heartburn may be something else that could be dangerous. That is why anybody that has chest pain or heartburn should seek medical advice to rule out other problems that give heart-burn like symptoms,” said Dr Akere. “This is important because the way diseases that give heart-burn like symptoms are treated differ one from another. For instance, if the heartburn like symptoms is due to heart attack and the individual was merely taking antacid, of course, the person will die in a short period of time.”

Hitherto, the expert declared that people with heartburn only report in the hospital after taking antacid and they did not get better. “In such instances, the medical doctor would now find out that the heartburn symptom is due to another medical condition,” he explained.

Nevertheless, heartburn can be hereditary and can develop with age, too. Other triggers include obesity, pregnancy or over-indulgence, where pressure on the stomach pushes some of its contents out. Caffeine and rich, spicy or citrus foods can also be a problem, as these relax the valve in the food pipe. A hiatus hernia — when part of the stomach is trapped behind the oesophagus — is another common cause. - Nigerian news, health & beauty news, naija, Nigeria, West Africa

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Updated 7 Years ago

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