For many people, acid indigestion (known as heartburn) is more than an occasional annoyance after eating a greasy meal. Research shows that more than 60 million people suffer from this burning sensation that can extend from the breastbone to the neck and throat.

According to experts at MedStar Health and the American Gastroenterological Association, heartburn is the most common symptom of a digestive disorder called Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).

GERD involves the stomach and esophagus (swallowing tube). Reflux refers to acidic gastric juices backing up into your esophagus. The sphincter muscle connecting the stomach to the esophagus is weak or relaxes abnormally, allowing gastric juice to flow into the esophagus.

Although GERD is rarely life threatening, it can lead to internal bleeding, ulceration, strictures or esophageal cancer. Early detection can help prevent minor heartburn from becoming a major health issue.

Symptoms

Heartburn sufferers may also experience a sore throat, hoarseness, chronic cough, asthma or a feeling of a lump in the throat. Because there can be chest pain associated with GERD, heartburn sometimes is mistaken for heart attack. Heartburn may not be a sign of a serious problem, but if it occurs frequently or is not relieved by over-the-counter treatment, you should call your doctor.

About 80 percent of GERD sufferers experience nighttime heartburn. When sleeping and lying flat, the esophagus may have trouble clearing the acid reflux. Because acid may linger longer in the esophagus at night, this type of heartburn can also lead to inflammation, scarring and possible risk of asthma or cancer.

Because lifestyle and diet play a major role in heartburn, the following treatments may help prevent, minimize or alleviate the discomfort:

  • Avoid eating large meals at least two hours before bedtime
  • Avoid food, beverages and medications that may damage the esophageal lining or relax the lower esophageal sphincter, such as:
    • Chocolate
    • Peppermint
    • Fried and fatty foods
    • Coffee
    • Carbonated beverages
    • Alcoholic beverages
    • Citrus fruits and juices
    • Tomato products
    • Pepper
    • Vinegar
    • Ketchup and mustard

To help minimize heartburn symptoms:

  • Chew gum. It boosts saliva production, allowing quicker and more efficient neutralization of refluxed acid.
  • Lose weight, if indicated.
  • Stop smoking to help the esophageal muscle work better.
  • Elevate the head of the bed by 4 to 6 inches, using cinder blocks or telephone books.
  • Eliminate midnight snacks.

If symptoms persist after trying lifestyle modifications and over-the-counter antacids, see your doctor.