Heartburn is the Most Common Gastric and Intestinal Symptom Seen by Family Physicians

Looking for something deer? (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Looking for something deer? (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

Heartburn is due to the reflux of stomach acid and food into the esophagus, the throat, or the lungs. It is the most common gastric and intestinal disorder seen by family physicians. The condition is also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Occasionally, patients with gastric reflux may present with chest pain. It is not a good idea to tell a patient with a history of reflux that the chest pain is due to GERD. It is imperative that the patient should be first investigated for a heart condition. If that is normal then the patient should be investigated for GERD.

Some patients with GERD may present with symptoms of chronic cough, asthma and laryngitis. Other atypical symptoms include dyspepsia, upper abdominal pain, nausea, bloating and belching, though these are symptoms also seen in other conditions. So each patient should be evaluated carefully.

Most patients with GERD are in the age group 70 to 79 years. Lowest incidence of GERD is in the age group 20 to 29. As the person ages the frequency and duration of esophageal acid exposure, and severity of esophagitis (inflammation of the esophagus) increases.

There are many reasons why GERD symptoms get worse. Some medications and posture may aggravate the symptoms. Obesity is a major risk factor for acid damage to the esophagus. Patient should be immediately investigated with endoscopy (scope test) if there is a history of weight loss, difficult or painful swallowing or there is presence of anemia.

Endoscopic examine of the esophagus, stomach and duodenum is a good diagnostic test for patients with a history of reflux. Patients with uncomplicated reflux may not need a scope test unless the diagnosis is not clear. But patients with complicated reflux should be scoped.

Treatment of reflux is mostly medical. Start with lifestyle changes. Avoid food that gives you heartburn. Lose some weight. Weight loss has been shown to be beneficial in patients who are overweight.

Elevation of the head of the bed and avoidance of late evening meals, particularly with high fat content, has shown to be beneficial for individuals with nocturnal symptoms or sleep disturbance.

Avoidance of food triggers such as chocolate, caffeine, citrus foods, spicy foods, carbonated beverages, etc., has been shown to be beneficial only if an individual can identify a specific trigger.

If a patient presents with typical symptoms of GERD then a trial of medication is indicated. Most commonly used pills fall under the category of proton pump inhibitors (PPI). Some examples of PPI are pantoprazole (Tecta, Pantoloc), omeprazole (Losec), lansoprazole (Prevacid), rabeprazole (Pariet). There are no clear differences between PPIs in terms of symptom relief or healing of inflamed esophagus (erosive esophagitis).

For best effect, PPI should be taken 30-60 minutes before the first meal of the day. Symptoms more likely to respond to PPI therapy include upper abdominal pain, early sense of fullness and belching. Antacids have a relatively short duration of action and their use can be associated with significant side effects.

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