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Heartburn


Overview :

More than one-third of the population is afflicted by heartburn, with about one-tenth afflicted daily. Infrequent heartburn is usually without serious consequences, but chronic or frequent heartburn (recurring more than twice per week) can have severe consequences. Accordingly, early management is important.

Understanding heartburn depends on understanding the structure and action of the esophagus. The esophagus is a tube connecting the throat to the stomach. It is about 10 in (25 cm) long in adults, lined with squamous (plate-like) epithelial cells, coated with mucus, and surrounded by muscles that push food to the stomach by sequential waves of contraction (peristalsis). The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is a thick band of muscles that encircles the esophagus just above the uppermost part of the stomach. This sphincter is usually tightly closed and normally opens only when food passes from the esophagus into the stomach. Thus, the contents of the stomach are normally kept from moving back into the esophagus.

The stomach has a thick mucous coating that protects it from the strong acid it secretes into its interior when food is present, but the much thinner esophageal coating doesn't provide protection against acid. Thus, if the LES opens inappropriately or fails to close completely, and stomach contents leak into the esophagus, the esophagus can be burned by acid. The resulting burning sensation is called heartburn.

Occasional heartburn has no serious long-lasting effects, but repeated episodes of gastroesophageal reflux can ultimately lead to esophageal inflammation (esophagitis) and other damage. If episodes occur more frequently than twice a week, and the esophagus is repeatedly subjected to acid and digestive enzymes from the stomach, ulcerations, scarring, and thickening of the esophagus walls can result. This thickening of the esophagus wall causes a narrowing of the interior of the esophagus. Such narrowing affects swallowing and peristaltic movements. Repeated irritation can also result in changes in the types of cells that line the esophagus. The condition associated with these changes is termed Barrett's syndrome and can lead to esophageal cancer.




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