You thought you have a simple case of heartburn, but lately, after adding a
few inches to your waistline, it's more than that: a frequent feeling of pain
under your breastbone; the faint taste of acid on the back of your tongue;
trouble sleeping a few times a week; and problems swallowing.
It happens when you eat too much, when you doze on the couch after dinner,
and when you have too many drinks during cocktail hour. Chowing down a few
slices of pepperoni pizza doesn't seem to be a problem, but tacos almost
guarantee a night of chest pain and tossing and turning. For other people, the
reverse could be true, or the problem could come from other foods.
The majority of people who have hiatal hernias don't even realize it. Those who do know typically find out when visiting a health care provider because of chronic heartburn. Symptoms may include:
Chest pain radiating from below the breastbone
A bloated feeling after eating
Shortness of breath
What's going on? Your occasional bout of heartburn has now become one part
of a larger problem -- GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease.
"Everybody has a little bit of heartburn," says Joel Richter, MD, a
gastroenterologist and chairman of medicine at Temple University. "But GERD
is when it becomes chronic, occurring two or three times a week or more; when
it's interfering with your lifestyle so that you're avoiding eating various
foods; when you're not exercising because you get heartburn; and when it's
interfering with sleep and when swallowing."
Heartburn: A Symptom of GERD
More than 15 million Americans, usually adults but also children, have GERD.
Many of these people deal with heartburn, its most common symptom, two or more
times a week. The root cause of the disease is a faulty valve between the
esophagus and the stomach, called the lower esophageal sphincter, that relaxes
more often than it should. The result is that juice from the stomach --
made up of acid, digestive enzymes, and other unpleasant substances -- sneaks
back up into the esophagus and damages its lining.
Why this happens isn't always clear, but doctors do know that the valve may
stop working properly if a person:
Is overweight. Extra weight puts pressure on the valve, causing it to
Is pregnant. Hormones play a role in relaxing the valve, and the growing
fetus puts pressure on the stomach.
Has a hiatal hernia. This prevents the muscle wall between the chest and
the stomach from supporting the valve as it should.
GERD can be just heartburn or heartburn plus other symptoms, including
excessive clearing of the throat, problems swallowing, the feeling that food is
stuck in your throat, burning in the mouth, and burning pain in the chest.
Untreated, GERD can lead to serious health problems, so it needs to be taken
seriously and managed with both medication and smart lifestyle choices,
starting with maintaining a healthy weight.