By Sally Robertson, BSc
Indigestion or dyspepsia is a condition that causes discomfort or pain in the chest or upper abdomen. Indigestion usually occurs after a person has eaten a meal, although it can happen at any time. This symptom is caused by the stomach acid coming into contact with the lining of the digestive tract, which then becomes irritated and inflamed.
As a symptom rather than a disease itself, indigestion may occur as the result of an underlying condition such as gastro-esophageal reflux disease, a gall bladder disorder or an ulcer.
The symptoms of indigestion include:
- Pain or discomfort in the chest and upper abdomen or stomach region
- Heartburn or discomfort behind the breast bone or sternum
- Feeling of fullness and bloating
- Nausea and vomiting
- Acidic taste in the mouth
These symptoms may range in severity and duration, depending on what is causing them. Most cases of mild symptoms can be managed at home and people do not need to see a physician. However, if the symptoms are severe, only begin after physical activity, or fail to improve after taking self-help measures, then medical assistance should be sought.
As indigestion can sometimes indicate a more serious underlying problem, such as stomach cancer, people should also see their doctor if any of these additional factors apply:
- Blood in the vomit or stool
- Difficulty swallowing
- Unexplained weight loss
- Symptoms presenting and persisting for the first time at age 55 or older
- Symptoms of anemia
As indigestion can also be a sign of a heart attack, emergency services should be contacted if any of the following symptoms apply:
- Tight or heavy chest
- Breathing difficulty
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Pain radiating to the neck, jaw and arm
Indigestion is very common and may affect either gender at any age. However, certain factors increase the likelihood of indigestion developing and these include excess alcohol consumption, the presence of another problem in the digestive tract such as an ulcer, the use of certain medications that can irritate the stomach such as aspirin, and emotional issues such as depression or anxiety.
Listed below are the different diseases, medications and lifestyle factors that can raise the risk of indigestion occurring.
- Gastro-esophageal reflux disease
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Stomach cancer
- Thyroid disease
- Some antibiotics
- Some painkillers, such as aspirin
- Thyroid medications
- Oral contraceptives
- Estrogen therapy
- Fatigue and stress
- Excess alcohol consumption
- Eating too much or too quickly
- Eating high-fat foods
- Eating while stressed
In most cases, indigestion resolves independently and no medication is required. However, if symptoms worsen, it may be necessary to seek medical advice. For mild cases, people may be advised to take the following measures:
- Avoid eating with an open mouth or while talking, so as to prevent air being swallowed
- Consume fluids after a meal rather than during it
- Stop smoking
- Do not eat late at night
- Avoid alcohol
- Avoid spicy food
If symptoms do not improve after following these tips, a doctor may prescribe medication to treat the problem. As indigestion is a symptom rather than a disease, the treatment choice will depend on the underlying cause.
Last Updated: Nov 19, 2014