Heartburn and Stroke Risk: Latest Research
Heartburn is something almost everybody can relate to, and more often than not it’s thought of as a minor annoyance, the kind of thing that might – at worst – sour a dinner party.
What many people don’t realise is that, for some sufferers, heartburn can make normal, everyday tasks a real challenge. Regular heartburn is often an indicator of a more serious condition called gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD), which is often associated with other unpleasant symptoms such as acid reflux, bad breath, nausea and difficulty swallowing.
Sometimes heartburn and GORD can be managed through self-care and taking over-the-counter medication. In more extreme cases, prescription medicines are required. Currently the most popular of these is the proton pump inhibitor (PPI), a type of medicine that reduces the amount of acid produced by the stomach.
However, it now looks as though PPIs may not be as safe to use as previously thought. A recent study by the Danish Heart Foundation has found that PPIs seems to be associated with the risk of stroke. Drawing on fifteen years of records, researchers looked at the number of ischaemic strokes occurring in people who had undergone gastric endoscopy (a technique used to diagnose GORD).
The researchers found that 9,500 of these patients had suffered an ischaemic stroke. They also found that – even when adjusted for contributing factors such as age and medical history – this seemed to bear a relationship to their use of PPIs.
The conclusion drawn was that low daily doses (e.g. 10mg) of proton pump inhibitors are safe; however, the stroke risk seems to creep up at around the 60mg mark.
This may be very concerning for people currently taking proton pump inhibitors, but it’s important to recognise that – as stated – low doses seem to pose no threat, and that there are alternative medications available. If you’re very concerned, speak to your GP. Otherwise, read on to find out more about heartburn and GORD.
What is the difference between heartburn and GORD?
Heartburn normally happens after eating, when acid from the stomach leaks into the oesophagus and causes an unpleasant burning sensation in the chest. Heartburn is often caused by consuming spicy or fatty foods, or drinks containing alcohol or caffeine (it can also be triggered by chocolate, tomatoes and citrus fruit).
In some cases, however, heartburn is a symptom of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease. GORD is different to heartburn because it is a chronic (i.e. long-term) condition, which causes regular symptoms. It's caused by stomach acid leaking into the oesophagus, usually because the muscle at the base of the oesophagus has been weakened.
What are the risk factors for heartburn and GORD?
There are several factors that can put you at risk for heartburn and GORD. These include:
- being overweight or obese
- being a smoker
- medical conditions such as hiatus hernia or gastroparesis
There is also some evidence to suggest that GORD can be inherited genetically.
Treatments for Heartburn and GORD
If your heartburn isn’t too serious and you think you can manage it without medication, try the following:
- avoid eating three large meals a day; aim for smaller, more frequent portions over the course of the day
- work out what triggers your heartburn and avoid it
- don’t wear clothing that is tight on your stomach
- raise up the head of your bed so that you sleep at a slight angle; this will help to prevent stomach acid from leaking upwards
- if you’re stressed, start doing relaxation techniques
- maintain a healthy weight
If you can’t manage your symptoms on your own, visit a pharmacy for over-the-counter medication such as antacids. If the condition is more serious, you can request prescription medication from your doctor.
The prescription treatments for heartburn and GORD are:
If you are prescribed either of these, you will be given the lowest dose to begin with; this means that for many patients, PPIs should still be safe to use. To read more, visit The Online Clinic’s Heartburn page.
In some situations, surgery may be appropriate. Click here to find out more about your surgical options for heartburn and GORD.