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America Asks About Heartburn & GERD

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Heartburn Worry: Serious or Not?

What you need to know about heartburn -- when to worry, when not, what to do.

Is There Anything Besides Eating That Leads to Heartburn?

Besides eating a heavy meal, heavy lifting can cause heartburn, says Galier. So can exercise. And lying flat, especially after eating a big meal, can lead to heartburn, too. 

People who are overweight or obese are more likely to suffer, Eisen says, noting that some people think only obesity raises heartburn risk. He also points out that pregnant women can suffer heartburn. He says that’s probably because elevated levels of the hormone progesterone cause a temporary weakness in the LES.

What's "Normal" With Heartburn?

"Heartburn should never be considered normal," says Galier. Food is often the culprit. People with heartburn typically may be sensitive to foods such as chocolate, carbonated beverages, peppermint, coffee, citrus foods, fried and fatty foods, and spicy foods.

Having heartburn more than occasionally can reduce your quality of life. It can affect not just what you eat, but how you sleep and what activities you do.

And if heartburn from acid reflux persists and you don't get treatment, complications can occur. They include damaging inflammation of the esophagus that affects the lining and causes bleeding. Another potential complication is Barrett's esophagus. With Barrett's esophagus the cells that line the esophagus become abnormal. That, in turn, boosts the risk of esophageal cancer.

When Should Someone See a Doctor About Heartburn?

Galier says if you are reaching for antacids more days than not, you should see your doctor.

Eisen considers heartburn "occasional" if it occurs once a week or less. He says it’s time to seek medical help if you have had heartburn more than once a week for six months or longer more and are not getting better.  

How Does the Doctor Evaluate Heartburn?

Your doctor may order several different tests and take the following steps to evaluate persistent heartburn that hasn't gone away even after you modify factors such as your diet:

  • Your doctor may ask for an EKG to help rule out heart-related problems. 
  • Your doctor will perform an examination to see if you have any abdominal mass or a hiatal hernia. A hiatal hernia occurs when the upper part of the stomach and the LES move above the diaphragm.
  • Your doctor will check your blood pressure.
  • Your doctor will take a careful medical history to see if medications are causing the problem. 
  • Your doctor may ask for a gastric emptying study to see how fast food goes out of your stomach or a test to show how well the esophagus and the LES work.
  • Your doctor may refer you for an upper endoscopy. In this test, a flexible tube with a tiny camera helps the doctor assess the esophagus and look for damage or abnormalities.
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