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When Heartburn is a Raging Fire

Most of us get heartburn once in a while, that feeling of indigestion, sometimes with hoarseness, coughing and chest pain. It's annoying for some, but for others, like Sharon VanCoy of Shady Cove, heartburn is a raging, ravaging fire.

"I can get heartburn that nothing stops; but it's not just heartburn, it's heartburn that comes back up in the back of your throat," Sharon says. "It feels like you've just swallowed lava, that acid in the back of your throat."

Not everyone's heartburn warrants more than a mention to their health care provider, but in Sharon's case, the muscles that protect her esophagus from her stomach hadn't closed properly for a long time.

"We all have some degree of acid coming back into the esophagus," remarks Dr. John Walker, a Medford gastroenterologist, "but an abnormal amount coming back is what we call acid reflux." Also known as reflux esophagitis or GERD, as many as 25 percent of Americans experience acid reflux at least once a month.

Although the cause of acid reflux is not known, some of your genetics and behavior can be risk factors for the disease. Dr. Walker warns that overeating, eating before bedtime and smoking can increase your risk of acid reflux. Certain foods can also trigger the reflux: fatty foods, coffee, alcohol and spicy foods, even chocolate.

Obesity, and even being moderately overweight, is another risk factor and one more reason to drop a couple of pounds. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that even a moderate weight loss can decrease the risk of reflux by as much as 40 percent and reduce the need for prescription medications.

Sharon doesn't have many of the traditional risk factors for acid reflux, but her disease is severe. She tried sleeping in a sitting position and learned to guard against trigger foods: "Jalapeños, cayenne, cinnamon and black pepper set it off, anything spicy," she says.

Even so, her reflux started anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours after eating and often woke her out of a deep sleep. "Sometimes I could drink milk to get rid of it, sometimes Seven-Up. Other times I just had to wait it out," Sharon says as she shudders.

Dr. Walker cautions that it's important to find out how damaged the esophagus is and how aggressively to treat the disease. "Untreated reflux disease certainly affects quality of life," he remarks, "and can even lead to esophageal lesions that can be cancerous."

Acid reflux is easy to diagnose and treatment can improve the awful symptom of acid surging up your throat. "We do an upper endoscopy that is quite safe and totally painless," Dr. Walker encourages. With the endoscopy, a tiny camera is threaded into the throat and esophagus to look for lesions.

Weight loss, improving your diet and changing some risky behaviors can help reduce heartburn and early signs of acid reflux disease. Christy Meyers, registered pharmacist with Cascade Natural Health Pharmacy in White City also recommends over-the-counter products for minor heartburn, including Tums, Prilosec OTC or homeopathic and complementary medications: "There are alternative products that use digestive enzymes to help the body digest and assimilate nutrients," says Meyers, "or natural acid neutralizers to help relieve symptoms of stomach distress."

But some people, like VanCoy who has severe and refractory acid reflux, need prescription medications for more immediate and aggressive treatment to control the disease.

"People should know that there are drugs out there that can help," Sharon exclaims. "In my case, it's been wonderful!" With her acid reflux symptoms under control, Sharon can focus on staying well and enjoying life. And now she can finally taste her son-in-law's special recipe for Spanish rice.