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Heartburn Causes and Treatment

Updated on February 14, 2010

Heartburn is a burning sensation under the breastbone (sternum) and the upper portion of the abdomen. It usually occurs after eating and may be associated with nausea, cramps, and other symptoms of indigestion.

Causes

In many cases, heartburn is caused by minor digestive disorders, such as gastritis, or by spasms of the muscle at the upper end of the stomach. The burning sensation is due to a backup of the acidic contents of the stomach into the esophagus, or gullet.

Sometimes heartburn is an early symptom of a more serious disorder of the digestive system. It may be a sign of a hiatal hernia, which is a translocation of a portion of the stomach into the chest cavity. When a hiatal hernia is the cause, the heartburn is felt mostly after the person has eaten a heavy meal and is lying down. Other disorders that may cause heartburn include esophagitis (inflammation of the esophagus), peptic ulcer, and diseases of the gall bladder and pancreas.

Because heartburn may also be caused by heart disease, it is important that a person suffering severe heartburn have a complete medical checkup. All too often, the pain caused by angina pectoris and even a heart attack is dismissed by the patient as indigestion.

Treatment

Heartburn caused by gastritis or spasms of the stomach can be relieved by antacids or antispasmodic drugs. If caused by a hiatal hernia, heartburn can sometimes be controlled by having the patient refrain from overeating or eat more slowly and remain in an upright position after eating. In severe cases, the hernia may be treated through surgery. Heartburn caused by other diseases cannot be cured until the underlying disorder is treated.

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