Heartburn is a burning pain in your chest, just behind your breastbone. The pain is often worse when lying down or bending over.
Occasional heartburn is common and no cause for alarm. Most people can manage the discomfort of heartburn on their own with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications.
Heartburn that is more frequent or interferes with your daily routine may be a symptom of a more serious condition that requires medical care.
Tests and diagnosis
To determine if your heartburn is a symptom of GERD, your doctor may recommend:
- X-ray, to view the shape and condition of your esophagus and stomach.
- Endoscopy, to check for abnormalities in your esophagus. A tissue sample (biopsy) may be taken for analysis.
- Ambulatory acid probe tests, to identify when, and for how long, stomach acid backs up into your esophagus. An acid monitor that is placed in your esophagus connects to a small computer that you wear around your waist or on a strap over your shoulder.
- Esophageal motility testing, to measure movement and pressure in your esophagus
Treatments and drugs
Many over-the-counter medications can help relieve heartburn. The options include:
- Antacids, which help neutralize stomach acid. Antacids may provide quick relief. But they can't heal an esophagus damaged by stomach acid.
- H-2-receptor antagonists (H2RAs), which can reduce stomach acid. H2RAs don't act as quickly as antacids, but may provide longer relief.
- Proton pump inhibitors, such as lansoprazole (Prevacid 24HR) and omeprazole (Prilosec OTC), which also can reduce stomach acid.
If over-the-counter treatments don't work or you rely on them often, see your doctor. You may need prescription medication
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic digestive disease. GERD occurs when stomach acid or, occasionally, stomach content, flows back into your food pipe (esophagus). The backwash (reflux) irritates the lining of your esophagus and causes GERD.
Both acid reflux and heartburn are common digestive conditions that many people experience from time to time. When these signs and symptoms occur at least twice each week or interfere with your daily life, or when your doctor can see damage to your esophagus, you may be diagnosed with GERD.
Most people can manage the discomfort of GERD with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications. But some people with GERD may need stronger medications, or even surgery, to reduce symptoms.
Tests and diagnosis
Diagnosis of GERD is based on:
- Your symptoms. Your doctor may be able to diagnose GERD based on frequent heartburn and other symptoms.
- A test to monitor the amount of acid in your esophagus. Ambulatory acid (pH) probe tests use a device to measure acid for 24 hours. The device identifies when, and for how long, stomach acid regurgitates into your esophagus. One type of monitor is a thin, flexible tube (catheter) that's threaded through your nose into your esophagus. The tube connects to a small computer that you wear around your waist or with a strap over your shoulder.
Another type is a clip that's placed in your esophagus during endoscopy. The probe transmits a signal, also to a small computer that you wear. After about two days, the probe falls off to be passed in your stool. Your doctor may ask that you stop taking GERD medications to prepare for this test.
If you have GERD and you're a candidate for surgery, you may also have other tests, such as:
- An X-ray of your upper digestive system. Sometimes called a barium swallow or upper GI series, this procedure involves drinking a chalky liquid that coats and fills the inside lining of your digestive tract. Then X-rays are taken of your upper digestive tract. The coating allows your doctor to see a silhouette of your esophagus, stomach and upper intestine (duodenum).
- A flexible tube to look inside your esophagus. Endoscopy is a way to visually examine the inside of your esophagus and stomach. During endoscopy, your doctor inserts a thin, flexible tube equipped with a light and camera (endoscope) down your throat.
Your doctor may also use endoscopy to collect a sample of tissue (biopsy) for further testing. Endoscopy is useful in looking for complications of reflux, such as Barrett's esophagus.
- A test to measure the movement of the esophagus.Esophageal motility testing (manometry) measures movement and pressure in the esophagus. The test involves placing a catheter through your nose and into your esophagus.
Treatments and drugs
Treatment for heartburn and other signs and symptoms of GERD usually begins with over-the-counter medications that control acid. If you don't experience relief within a few weeks, your doctor may recommend other treatments, including medications and surgery.
Initial treatments to control heartburn
Over-the-counter treatments that may help control heartburn include:
- Antacids that neutralize stomach acid. Antacids, such as Maalox, Mylanta, Gelusil, Gaviscon, Rolaids and Tums, may provide quick relief. But antacids alone won't heal an inflamed esophagus damaged by stomach acid. Overuse of some antacids can cause side effects, such as diarrhea or constipation.
- Medications to reduce acid production. Called H-2-receptor blockers, these medications include cimetidine (Tagamet HB), famotidine (Pepcid AC), nizatidine (Axid AR) or ranitidine (Zantac). H-2-receptor blockers don't act as quickly as antacids do, but they provide longer relief and may decrease acid production from the stomach for up to 12 hours. Stronger versions of these medications are available in prescription form.
- Medications that block acid production and heal the esophagus. Proton pump inhibitors are stronger blockers of acid production than are H-2-receptor blockers and allow time for damaged esophageal tissue to heal. Over-the-counter proton pump inhibitors include lansoprazole (Prevacid 24 HR) and omeprazole (Prilosec, Zegerid OTC).
Contact your doctor if you need to take these medications for longer than two to three weeks or your symptoms are not relieved.
If heartburn persists despite initial approaches, your doctor may recommend prescription-strength medications, such as:
- Prescription-strength H-2-receptor blockers. These include prescription-strength cimetidine (Tagamet), famotidine (Pepcid), nizatidine (Axid) and ranitidine (Zantac).
- Prescription-strength proton pump inhibitors. Prescription-strength proton pump inhibitors include esomeprazole (Nexium), lansoprazole (Prevacid), omeprazole (Prilosec, Zegerid), pantoprazole (Protonix), rabeprazole (Aciphex) and dexlansoprazole (Dexilant).
These medications are generally well-tolerated, but long-term use may be associated with a slight increase in risk of bone fracture and vitamin B-12 deficiency.
- Medications to strengthen the lower esophageal sphincter. Baclofen may decrease the frequency of relaxations of the lower esophageal sphincter and therefore decrease gastroesophageal reflux. It has less of an effect than do proton pump inhibitors, but it might be used in severe reflux disease. Baclofen can be associated with significant side effects, most commonly fatigue or confusion.
GERD medications are sometimes combined to increase effectiveness.
Surgery and other procedures used if medications don't help
Most GERD can be controlled through medications. In situations where medications aren't helpful or you wish to avoid long-term medication use, your doctor may recommend more-invasive procedures, such as:
- Surgery to reinforce the lower esophageal sphincter (Nissen fundoplication). This surgery involves tightening the lower esophageal sphincter to prevent reflux by wrapping the very top of the stomach around the outside of the lower esophagus. Surgeons usually perform this surgery laparoscopically. In laparoscopic surgery, the surgeon makes three or four small incisions in the abdomen and inserts instruments, including a flexible tube with a tiny camera, through the incisions.
- Surgery to strengthen the lower esophageal sphincter (Linx). The Linx device is a ring of tiny magnetic titanium beads that is wrapped around the junction of the stomach and esophagus. The magnetic attraction between the beads is strong enough to keep the opening between the two closed to refluxing acid, but weak enough so that food can pass through it. It can be implanted using minimally invasive surgery methods. This newer device has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and early studies with it appear promising.