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heartburn

heartburn, burning sensation beneath the breastbone, also called pyrosis. Heartburn does not indicate heart malfunction but results from nervous tension or overindulgence in food or drink. The sensation is produced by spasmodic constrictions of the esophagus accompanied or occasioned by regurgitation of stomach acids, which spread upward into the throat, and may result in belching or vomiting. Physical activity immediately following ingestion of food may exaggerate symptoms.

The discomfort can usually be relieved by taking alkaline preparations to counteract the excessive acidity (see antacid). Proper dietary habits, e.g., eating slowly, avoiding spicy foods, and a period of physical inactivity after eating, may prevent heartburn. Sometimes the condition is symptomatic of a disease of the digestive system, such as a stomach ulcer or gall bladder disorder.

Chronic heartburn, known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) increases the risk of esophageal cancer. Persistent recurrence should be called to the attention of a physician, and is often treated with drugs such as the H2-blockers ranitidine (Zantac), famotidine (Pepcid), and cimetidine (Tagamet) and the proton pump inhibitor omeprazole (Prilosec). Surgery in which the upper dome-shaped portion of the stomach is sutured around the lower esophagus to increase the pressure on the esophogeal side of the sphincter and prevent reflux is also used to treat GERD.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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