You may have experienced a “burning” sensation in the upper and central part of your chest or throat, right after taking meals or spicy food, and perhaps you wondered why.
At one moment, it came in the middle of the night, waking you up as if the chest was on fire. This is simply “acidity” in your food canal.
From my point of view as a medical doctor, it is important to differentiate these cases of chest pains which could range from just a simple heartburn to a more severe life threatening condition, for example, a heart attack.
By the way, a heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. Some of its symptoms, however, are similar to those of a heart attack or heart disease but it’s merely an irritation of the esophagus.
A heartburn is also called “acid – reflux” also known medically as GERD. This occurs when stomach contents flow back into the food pipe (oesphagus).
Now, let’s look at what would cause someone to have a heartburn every day, as we address what actually causes it.
Stomach abnormalities – our stomach can be visualized as a bag with tight sphincters which closes when it contains food in order to churn, digest and prevents backflow. Loose tone the sphincter between the stomach and esophagus and abnormalities like hiatal hernia causes backflow of its content.
Increased acid production – this could be hereditary or due to life style factors like smoking, stress, certain food triggers (fatty food, spices, caffeinated and fizzy drinks, citrus fruits, alcohol, garlic) or hyper secretory acid states.
Pregnancy – increasing the hormonal levels combined with pressure effects of the foetus and increase backflow of stomach contents into the oesophagus.
Others include– Medicine (aspirin, diclofenac, and ibuprofen), obesity, and old age, laying down right after meal and eating heavy meals before bedtime.
Triggers differ from person – person. Usually an individual suffering from an acid- reflux will complain of the following;
Feeling of a burning sensation in the central and upper part of the chest and throat. Often giving a metallic, acidic, sour taste. It could be a few minutes after a meal or during fasting (empty stomach) and aggravated when laid down.
Abdominal pain which is usually in the upper part called the epigastric region.
Bloating – feeling of fullness
Relief of the complains after taking an anti - acid
Rush of saliva after the episode
Statistics reported from Tampa Bay – reflux Center USA in October 2016 showed that between 20 – 30 per cent of adult Americans experience acid reflux symptoms every week.
Of the people who experience heartburn, 40 per cent say that night time heartburn affects their job performance the next day. African regions show a lower prevalence of this condition.
In Tanzania studies have shown potential risk factors to be spicy food, silver cyprinid fish commonly known as “dagaa”, a mixture of beans and cooked green banana meal commonly known as “matoke” in East Africa, milk, and alcohol.
Most people who suffer from occasional heartburn are able to control their symptoms through simple dietary or other lifestyle changes.
For some, though, this can be a sign of a more serious condition like GERD. If you notice that you’re suffering from heartburn on a regular basis, it is important to seek medical attention without delay.
Long term cases of GERD causes repetitive injury to the lower portion of esophagus. A small percentage of people will develop a condition called Barret’s Oesophagus, the abnormal changes in the cells of the esophagus. Barrett’s esophagus is associated with an increased risk of developing cancer of the oesophagus. Although the risk is small, hence, it is important to have regular checkups to detect it early.
The author is a medical doctor based at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (Muhas).