It's probably safe to say all of us have had a bout of heartburn at least once in our lives. If acute heartburn goes untreated or unchecked it could lead to something far more serious and even deadly.
Studies have shown that approximately 4 out of 10 people experience occasional heartburn which experts say is considered fairly normal if it is indeed occasional. Often triggered by fatty foods, chocolate, peppermint, tomato sauces, alcohol and caffeine, it feels like food is trapped behind the breastbone leaving a burning sensation. Hence the name heartburn, but the medical term for it is acid reflux.
Here's how it happens:
The food travels down through the esophagus, often called the food pipe and into the stomach where it is digested by acid secretions present in gastric juices. Both openings of the stomach have sphincters. At the opening of the stomach is what's called the lower esophageal sphincter that prevents acid backflow into the esophagus, but when that muscle doesn't work normally that's exactly what happens. Acid goes back up into the esophagus and gives us that burning pain in the chest.
Dr. Shamoun says, "That sphincter relaxes at certain times to allow food to go in to the stomach. Now given most people have it, they think its normal and to some degree acid reflux is normal."
If you find yourself eating antacids after every meal there may be more of a serious problem.
Dr. Shamoun says, "The most significant risk that we worry about is cancer of the esophagus and if GERD happens for a long time in certain predisposed patients it can result in changes in the normal lining in the esophagus. The esophagus is not supposed to encounter or handle a lot of acid. If it does, the lining can change over time. It could become a condition known as Barrett's Esophagus and that is a risk factor for esophageal cancer.
Dr. Shamoun says once you have Barrett's Esophagus your risk for cancer increases 40 fold and that's why seeing a specialist is important. Don't pass off chronic acid reflux as just a simple case of ongoing indigestion, left untreated you could end up with a cancer diagnosis which is a lot tougher to swallow in the long run.
Dr. Shamoun says there are multiple levels of treatment if you suffer from heartburn and nothing else.
1. Diet and lifestyle modifications. Changing what you eat and how much, eliminating the foods that trigger the acid reflux.
2. Elevating the head of the bed at night, especially if your heartburn occurs at night.
3. There are over-the-counter antacid medications for those with GERD like Zantac. Or if you need something stronger there is Prilosec or Nexium (by prescription).
If a gastroenterologist thinks your esophagus need to be checked. They will do an endoscopy to check the lining of the esophagus, if they see questionable area they will do a biopsy. The earlier you catch the cancer, the better the outcome.