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Americans Waking Up to Nighttime Heartburn

By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Annie Finnegan

Aug. 24, 2000 (Washington) -- For many Americans, heartburn is more than an unpleasant sensation in the chest -- it's literally a nightmare. According to a new poll, nearly eight out of 10 heartburn sufferers have painful symptoms at night that keep most from falling asleep, or prompting them to wake up in the middle of the night. And 40% of the respondents say the problem slows them down the next day.

The numbers come from a survey done in the spring of this year by the Gallup Organization. It's being billed as the most comprehensive look ever at nighttime heartburn. The poll was commissioned by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) and paid for by a grant from Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories, a maker of heartburn drugs.

To compile the results, pollsters found 1,000 people around the country who experienced heartburn at least once a week and asked them questions over the phone.

The net result is that researchers now believe nearly 50 million Americans suffer at least one episode of nighttime heartburn per week. Physicians worry that, beyond discomfort, this could lead to more serious problems that range from diminished performance on the job, to automobile accidents, and even a higher risk of cancer of the esophagus.

Heartburn, a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), is the burning feeling when some stomach contents back up, or reflux, into the esophagus -- the tube that connects the throat to the stomach. At night, GERD is more troublesome because damaging stomach acids tend to creep out of the stomach while people are lying down.

"Cancer of the esophagus can be and is related to heartburn and more likely in people who have nighttime heartburn than in those who have daytime heartburn," said Donald Castell, MD, former president of the AGA at a news conference here Thursday.

It's estimated that there are about 6,000 cases of esophageal cancer each year in the U.S., and one recent study estimated that nighttime GERD sufferers are 11 times more likely to get the disease than those without the digestive problem.

Robert Rubin, age 59, feels he could have been another statistic. For years, his heartburn symptoms worsened until he finally got help from Castell. It turned out Rubin already had developed sores on his esophagus. "Had I not gotten it looked at and gotten proper treatment, I might not be here talking to you today, because it could have gotten very, very bad," he says.

In order to beat the acid heat and get a decent night's sleep, many with heartburn may resort to sleeping pills that could spawn a whole other layer of problems. According to William Orr, PhD who heads the Lynn Health Science Center in Oklahoma City, "Sleeping behavior affects waking behavior." It's estimated that 1,500 traffic deaths and 100,000 accidents a year in the U.S. may be caused by drowsy drivers.

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