We all experience heartburn at some point or the other in life. It is a burning sensation that we feel in our chest but in most instance it has nothing to do with the heart. When you talk about heartburn, you are specifically referring to a burning sensation in the oesophagus (food pipe) running through the chest cavity which is caused by stomach acid flowing backwards. This condition is commonly known as acid reflux but the correct medical term is gastro-oesophageal disease (GORD) or gastroesophageal disease (GERD).
Rising Stomach Acid
The stomach is one of the first major organs of digestion. It has strong muscular walls that crush and churns the food that you eat. Strong digestive enzymes and gastric acid is secreted by the stomach walls. This mixes with the food and helps in the chemical digestion. The stomach itself is equipped to deal with this highly corrosive acid. But other parts of the gut are not. Normally a ring of muscles around the lower part of your oesophagus (food pipe) prevents stomach acid from flowing backwards. It is known as the lower oesophageal sphincter.
When this sphincter malfunctions, stomach acid spills into the oesophagus. Since the oesophagus is unable to withstand the highly corrosive gastric acid, its inner lining becomes irritated and inflamed. The burning sensation that you experience in heartburn is the chemical irritation and damage to the inner oesophageal wall caused by the stomach acid. Heartburn is one of the symptoms of gastro-oesophageal reflux. Other symptoms that may also occur includes nausea, excessive salivation, burping (belching) and bloating.
Never Ignore Heartburn
Heartburn may not seem like a serious symptom. Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease is also not often seen in a serious light. But GORD can lead to serious complications like oesophagitis, oesophageal ulcers (open sores) and strictures, where a portion of your food pipe narrows. Indirectly, heartburn can affect your appetite and quality of sleep. Therefore it is important to treat acid reflux as soon as possible. You should see your doctor for prescription medication although over-the-counter antacids can offer quick relief.
More importantly though, heartburn may in some cases not be due to acid reflux. In the majority of cases a burning sensation in the chest (heartburn) is due to acid reflux and a constricting or crushing pain in the chest is due to heart conditions like coronary artery disease (CAD). But there are some exceptions. It has been known that many people who suddenly have a heart attack experienced weeks or months of heartburn which in fact was angina pectoris (heart-related chest pain) and not acid reflux.
It is therefore important that you have a medical check-up for your heartburn as soon as possible. Your doctor may consider further tests if you are at high risk of having coronary heart disease or a heart attack. Early intervention can save your life. It is for this reason in particular that you should never ignore heartburn. Remember that heartburn is a symptom and not a disease. Like most symptoms, there may be a variety of causes and the most common causative condition is not always the underlying problem.