Indigestion – should I worry?
Indigestion covers a multitude of symptoms in your tummy. The most common is pain – typically a burning pain in your upper tummy, or travelling behind your breastbone. However, indigestion can also cause:
- nausea or being sick
- bloating of your tummy
- feeling full quickly when you eat
Indigestion is usually caused by inflammation in your stomach (when doctors talk about your stomach, they mean the sac at the bottom of your gullet, which sits at the top of your tummy in the middle). This is often due to an excess of acid, which your body produces to digest food. If this acid refluxes into your gullet, it can cause heartburn – burning pain behind your breastbone, sometimes accompanied by a bitter liquid rising into your mouth.
Most people get indigestion sometimes. If you’ve had it on and off for a long time, and the symptoms haven’t changed, it’s unlikely to be anything to worry about. However, there are certain warning signs which increase the risk that your indigestion may have a serious cause. Possible causes include bleeding from a stomach ulcer, cancer of the stomach and cancer of the gullet (sometimes called the oesophagus). Although these problems are rare, you should see your doctor urgently if you:
- Get persistent indigestion for the first time when you’re over 55
- Pass blood (which can turn your stools black and tarry) in your stools
- Vomit blood
- Lose weight without meaning to
- Have difficulty swallowing
- Feel very tired or generally unwell
- Vomit persistently
- Have a risk factor for cancer such as ulcer surgery more than 20 years ago, or a condition called Barrett’s Oesophagus
Your doctor will refer you for a test called an endoscopy, which involves putting a small, flexible telescope into your stomach. Even if you are referred, there’s a very good chance that the endoscopy will reassure you that there’s nothing nasty going on.
Medicines are a common cause of indigestion. Some of the most common culprits include:
- anti-inflammatory tablets (taken for muscle pains, arthritis etc – they include drugs like ibuprofen, diclofenac and naproxen)
- bisphosphanates (tablets taken daily, weekly or monthly to prevent osteoporosis, or thinning of the bones)
- some antibiotics (especially erythromycin)
- steroid tablets
- iron tablets
- calcium antagonists (used for high blood pressure or sometimes angina)
If your indigestion starts, or gets worse, shortly after you start taking one of these medicines, see your GP. She may be able to change your tablet – or the time you take it – go get over the problem
Other simple measures that can help with indigestion include:
- avoiding smoking
- keeping alcohol to moderate limits (1 or 2 drinks a day) or cutting it out if your symptoms persist
- keeping your weight down
- not going to bed too soon after you eat
- avoiding tight clothes and belts
- Above all, don’t worry too much – avoiding stress can do wonders for your indigestion!
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.