Heartburn is a burning pain in your chest, just behind the breastbone. The pain is often worse after eating, in the evening, or when you lie down or bend over. If your heartburn is turning severe or interfering with your daily routine, it may be a sign of a critical condition that should be checked by the doctor. Many disorders, some of them even life-threatening, can imitate the feeling of heartburn and affect your health, such as GERD, stomach ulcer, and esophageal cancer. The board-certified and experienced gastroenterologists at Manhattan Gastroenterology utilize state-of-the-art technology and expert research skills to determine if it is just heartburn causing the irritating symptoms or some other medical issue troubling you. The top-rated gastro doctors ensure you get the best medical advice for your symptoms and come up with the best solutions to improve your quality of life.

Heartburn is a common ailment that affects a large population due to certain foods and drinks, obesity, use of certain medications, as well as stress and anxiety. It occurs when digestive acids back up into the esophageal tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach and irritates its delicate lining, causing burning pain, uncomfortable sensation, and inflammation in the chest.

Symptoms of Heartburn

If you experience a burning, discomfort in your chest after eating a large meal or spicy food, it is heartburn. Commonly experienced symptoms of heartburn include:

  • Pain in the chest that usually occurs after eating and mostly occurs at night
  • A burning sensation that worsens when you lie down or bend over
  • Bitter or acidic taste in the mouth
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Long term cough or sore throat

Experiencing heartburn is common and no cause for alarm. Most people manage it with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications. However, there are times when heartburn is not just a result of overeating or medications and fails to get any better with antacids and other remedies. It may be a sign of some bigger problem that lies beneath the surface and requires proper diagnosis.

Here are 6 signs that suggest your heartburn could be a symptom of something more serious. Read on to find out what is really causing the uncomfortable sensations and when to seek an expert opinion.

Frequent or Persistent Heartburn

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

Occasional heartburn can be controlled with careful eating and lifestyle changes, but if you experience heartburn more than twice a week or every day, it may be something serious. You may be suffering from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD is a digestive disorder that affects the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a muscle that connects the esophagus and the stomach.

LES serves as a barrier that prevents the digestive acid from the stomach from leaking into the esophagus. If due to any reason, the LES fails to function the right way or becomes weak, stomach acid can reach the esophagus and cause severe heartburn. If it is not prevented or treated timely, repetitive GERD can damage your esophagus or lead to a serious condition called Barrett’s esophagus in which frequent exposure to stomach acid can cause changes to esophageal cells. The damaged cells can transform into esophageal adenocarcinoma, a potentially fatal cancer.

Consult a doctor if you suffer from frequent or persistent heartburn or acid reflux, as it means you need appropriate treatment. The doctor may perform an endoscopy, a procedure in which an endoscope, a long, thin tube with a camera, is passed into your body through your mouth to examine the digestive tract.

Abdominal Pain

In severe cases of heartburn, the symptoms are not limited to the esophagus, and they may extend to the stomach, which results in abdominal pain. If you suffer from severe abdominal pain or bloating with heartburn, it may be a sign of gastritis. Gastritis is the inflammation of the stomach lining which is caused by bacteria, infection, chronic vomiting, and excessive use of alcohol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen.

Getting the stomach issue under control can relieve heartburn in most cases. If your abdominal pain does not go away or worsens, it is essential to seek medical attention before your condition deteriorates. The doctor may recommend an endoscopy to check out the extent of damage to the stomach lining.

Persistent Hiccups or Cough

Persistent hiccups or coughs may be a sign of hiatal hernia, a condition in which part of the stomach slips through a hole in the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the muscle between the chest and the abdomen that plays a significant role in normal breathing. When the diaphragm contracts, it inflates the lungs, allowing you to inhale. It has a small opening through which the esophagus passes before connecting to the stomach for the digestion process.

When the stomach slips through this opening, it can result in severe heartburn with chest or abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, or shortness of breath. You must visit a doctor if your heartburn and a cough or hiccup do not seem to do away as hiatal hernia is a serious condition and needs medical attention to make you feel better.

Difficulty in Swallowing

Difficulty in swallowing, on top of heartburn indicates esophagitis, a health condition that needs timely medical intervention. Esophagitis is the inflammation that damages the tissues of the esophagus, the muscular tube that delivers food from your mouth to the stomach. This condition is usually caused by GERD when the stomach acid persistently flows back up into the mouth through the esophagus and harms the esophageal cells.

Esophagitis can cause painful, difficult swallowing and chest pain that results from heartburn. Doctors may ask you to go for an endoscopy to assess the damage to your esophagus lining.

Nausea or Vomiting

If your heartburn is so severe that it makes you nauseous or ends up in vomiting, do not take it lightly, as it could be a sign of some underlying condition. Nausea and vomiting may be symptoms of GERD, hiatal hernia, or esophagitis. Vomiting or regurgitation of the stomach’s content may occur as a complication or result of any of these conditions, leaving a sour taste in the mouth. Some people end up losing their appetite or feeling nauseated, which makes it a challenge for them to eat or keep their food down.

Extreme nausea and vomiting may also indicate a grave medical emergency, such as a heart attack. It is necessary to consult your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you experience vomiting and nausea in addition to heartburn to prevent any unexpected outcomes.

Severe Pain or Pressure in the Chest

Heartburn can make you feel uncomfortable with a burning sensation in the chest and back of the throat. At the same time, if you feel severe pain or pressure in the chest with pain in the neck, jaw, or back and nausea and vomiting, seek immediate medical attention as you may be having a heart attack.

In some cases, severe heartburn affects the digestive system, which results in the heaviness that extends to the chest. If you are not sure what is causing this pain or pressure, call your doctor to avoid further complications.

When to See a Doctor?

If your acid reflux or heartburn is persistent, or the symptoms continue to worsen despite changes in diet, lifestyle, and over-the-counter medications, it is time to call your healthcare provider.

You must see a gastroenterologist if:

  • You experience heartburn more than twice a week
  • Your symptoms persist despite taking medications to relieve heartburn
  • You face problems with swallowing
  • You experience persistent nausea and vomiting
  • You begin to lose weight due to loss of appetite or difficulty eating

Call your doctor if you experience severe chest pain or pressure and other signs and symptoms such as pain in the arm or jaw and difficulty breathing. These symptoms should not be taken lightly, as they indicate heart trouble and could result in unpredictable consequences.

Consult the best gastro doctors at the Manhattan Gastroenterology to discuss your symptoms, and learn about treatment options to get rid of the pain and discomfort associated with heartburn and other potentially dangerous conditions. Expert gastroenterologists are highly rated for their experience and expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of conditions of the gastrointestinal tract as well as other medical issues with similar symptoms. They understand what you are going through and develop problem-focused treatment plans that help you feel better in the shortest possible time.

Updated on Sep 1, 2023 by Dr. Shawn Khodadadian (Gastroenterologist) of Manhattan Gastroenterology