Heartburn, otherwise known as acid reflux, is a condition characterised by a painful burning sensation in the chest, just behind the breastbone. It’s a fairly common sensation that takes place after eating, in the evening or when you’re lying down or bending over.
While this condition can be addressed with certain dietary and lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medication, if you’re someone who experiences heartburn constantly, it could not only interfere with your daily routine but also lead to serious complications.
Heartburn is the most common symptom of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease or GORD. It is a result of the improper working of a valve known as the lower oesophagal sphincter, which prevents food and acid, inside the stomach, from entering the oesophagus – the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach.
When it doesn’t work correctly, acid gets backed up into the oesophagus, resulting in a burning sensation in your chest and a bitter and acidic taste in your mouth.
Constant acid back-up in the oesophagus can cause its sensitive lining to get injured, resulting in the painful inflammation or infection called oesophagitis. This condition can cause severe discomfort, ulcers, open sores, and scarring of the oesophagus.
There’s also a risk of heavy bleeding in the oesophagus. Bleeding can also take place in the digestive tract and show up as dark, tarry stools.
Long term acid exposure from GORD can also lead to a condition called Barrett’s oesophagus where abnormal cells are formed to take the place of cells damaged as a result of acid reflux. These cells have the potential to turn cancerous.
If you have oesophagitis, you might be at an increased risk of developing oesophageal cancer. The probability of cancer might be greater for males over the age of 50, especially those who smoke and those who are obese.
Narrowing of the oesophagus
Over time, the damage caused to the oesophagus can create scarring and strictures, which can lead to the narrowing of its passages. This makes swallowing food and drink more difficult and can prevent food from reaching the stomach.
The damage can also cause oesophageal spasms, which are a type of painful chest pain that mimics a heart attack. However, if your oesophagus has become narrow, you’ll notice some relief from acid reflux because the narrowing blocks acid from rising.
Medical evidence demonstrates some kind of relationship between asthma and heartburn, causing researchers to believe that either heartburn is a trigger for asthma or asthma is a trigger for heartburn.
In fact, heartburn is more common among people with severe asthma, with reported prevalence rates between 17%-74%. Although the specific medical reason behind this relationship is still being studied, it’s believed that the acid that escapes from the stomach may also be entering the lungs.
GORD, in some cases, has also been linked to other respiratory conditions such as chronic bronchitis, chronic coughs and sinusitis, emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis (lung scarring), and recurrent pneumonia. The medical reasons for these types of complications are yet to be revealed.
Voice, throat and dental problems
While you might experience hoarseness in your throat and laryngitis from time to time, severe acid reflux can change your voice. This, however, can be rectified with the right type of treatment for gastro oesophageal reflux.
It’s also been noted that a frequent stream of acid that makes its way to the mouth, harms the tooth enamel, causing greater dental erosion in patients with heartburn compared to individuals who don’t experience this condition.
Prevent complications of heartburn through effective medical treatment
While it may be normal to experience symptoms of heartburn every once in a while, consulting an experienced gastroenterologist is important if you’re experiencing frequent attacks.
Be mindful of your own symptoms and seek expert medical advice, as early detection and effective treatment can help alleviate any unpleasant symptoms you may be experiencing and prevent serious complications from arising.