Last updated: Sep 15, 2011
dana-klush

The first heartburn symptom I remember experiencing was chest pain, in the mornings before high school swim-team practice. Of course, I didn't know they were acid-reflux symptoms then; I was 18 and very fit and athletic, and thought maybe it was musculoskeletal strain. So even though the pain was affecting my performance and was nearly impossible to bear during long practices, I ignored it for several months and hoped it would go away on its own.


It only got worse, however, and within a few months I was experiencing chest pain any time I felt hungry. I finally saw my primary-care doctor, and he diagnosed me with GERD. He placed me on a 28-day course of Prilosec OTC and, luckily, my symptoms went away completely. I began to forget I even had the diagnosis!

Stress and alcohol made my GERD worse
When I was 21 and in college, my chest pain and heartburn returned. This made sense, since I was, after all, acting like a 21-year-old college student: staying up late, drinking alcohol, and stressing over homework and exams. Each morning after a night out at a bar, I would experience painful heartburn. At night, reflux kept me from sleeping more times than I can count. I had to stack several pillows up in order to keep my head and chest elevated, so gravity could keep the acid down and out of my esophagus.

I again ignored it for a while, attributing my symptoms to increased alcohol intake. When they became more frequent, I self-diagnosed myself and began another course of Prilosec. This time, though, 28 days came and went, and the medication hadn't helped.

I saw my primary-care doctor again, and he extended my course of Prilosec. He also prescribed Tagamet, and I began taking Tums as well, when I needed extra relief. This helped a little, but I continued to battle symptoms on and off through the rest of college and into podiatry school.


Finally finding a long-term solution
During my residency, at age 27, my symptoms became so bad I had to try something else. My doctor placed me on Zegrid OTC, which finally seemed to do the trick. I take a 14-day course every six months—and I still use Tums as needed—and my symptoms are now pretty well controlled.

I now know what my big heartburn triggers are: stress and alcohol. I know spicy foods can affect some people, but I don't really like them and tend to avoid them anyway. I avoid alcohol, but unfortunately I cannot avoid stress in my job. Instead, I do what I can to try to relax and keep my life as balanced as possible.

Since finding a successful treatment, my life has definitely improved. When I was younger, my symptoms were debilitating: They kept me awake all night, hurt my athletic performance, distracted me from my schoolwork, and kept me from enjoying my social life.

Heartburn and reflux symptoms still affect me, but now I know how to control them better. I don't consider myself cured, and I don't think I ever will be. I do worry at times how my condition may affect me, but I know what symptoms to look out for and how to get ahead of them before they get the better of me.

Why it's so important to get treatment
I consider myself extremely lucky that I was diagnosed, and that I am able to control my condition. My father suffered from GERD for his entire life, as well. But he was stubborn, and wasn't treated actively for his symptoms. Three years ago, he had a duodenal ulcer that perforated. His gastric contents opened into his abdomen, and he was rushed to surgery immediately. Had he been more proactive, doctors may have discovered his ulcer earlier and been able to suppress its acidity with medication, preventing the perforation. Luckily, my father survived and thrived after the surgery, and is now being treated with prescription-strength Prilosec.

People suffering from heartburn—or even just unexplained chest pain—should see their doctor, and possibly a gastroenterologist. I'd also advise those who are affected by certain types of food to seek the help of a nutritionist, who can help them plan a diet that keeps heartburn symptoms at bay.

I wish I had known when I was 18 that my strange symptoms could have been treated earlier. I also wish I had known that GERD is hereditary, and that complications from the disease can become dangerous if not treated. But I'm glad that I never suffered any other related health problems, and that I'm at a point in my life where I can say the worst, hopefully, is behind me.