Description, causes, prevention, treatment and medicines

The term ‘indigestion’ is a layman’s term and is used to cover the symptoms of a few different medical conditions. It generally refers to an uncomfortable sensation in your lower chest or upper abdomen during or after a meal, perhaps accompanied by belching or bloating.

Medical conditions described as indigestion

Medical conditions that are often described as indigestion and which have indigestion as a symptom are:

  • heartburn (gastro-oesophageal reflux);
  • ulcers;
  • non-ulcer dyspepsia (when you have symptoms of an ulcer but no sign of ulcer on investigation);
  • food intolerance, e.g. lactose intolerance;
  • bloating and flatulence; and
  • aerophagia (swallowing excessive amounts of air).

Below, we have mentioned just some of the symptoms that are described as indigestion. For a full discussion of the medical conditions underlying the symptoms, please seek information on conditions such as heartburn, reflux, lactose intolerance and flatulence.

Indigestion mainly happens after a meal. Most people will suffer from episodes of indigestion from time to time — for example, if they eat too quickly, or eat too much. However, if you have a recurring problem or suddenly suffer from indigestion when you haven’t before, you should see your doctor.

What are the symptoms of indigestion?

Some of the symptoms described as indigestion are pain and a feeling of fullness, discomfort or a burning sensation in the chest (heartburn) and upper abdomen. Heartburn is caused by regurgitation of the acidic stomach contents up into the oesophagus and possibly the throat, known as gastro-oesophageal reflux by doctors.

Indigestion may be accompanied by other symptoms such as:

  • upper abdominal discomfort;
  • nausea;
  • constipation or diarrhoea;
  • loss of appetite;
  • feeling full longer than you expect after a meal;
  • belching;
  • vomiting; and
  • bloating.

What causes indigestion?

Some of the causes of indigestion are:

  • anxiety or stress;
  • eating too much, or too quickly;
  • consuming alcohol when eating;
  • intestinal diseases and disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and gastritis (inflammation of the stomach);
  • lactose intolerance;
  • gallstones;
  • being overweight;
  • swallowing excess air (aerophagia);
  • some medications;
  • exercising with a full stomach; and
  • stomach ulcers.

Talk to your doctor

Indigestion usually presents with only short-lived, minor symptoms, which happen to most people occasionally. However, sometimes indigestion can be an indication of a more serious condition. So see your doctor if any of the following happen:

  • your indigestion persists for more than a few weeks;
  • your indigestion does not respond to simple measures;
  • you start to lose weight;
  • you lose your appetite;
  • you have nausea or vomiting;
  • your indigestion is a new symptom for you;
  • your pain is severe or wakes you at night, or
  • you have pain on the top right-hand side of your abdomen.

This is particularly important if you are over 45 and have a history of gastrointestinal problems in the family, especially if you regularly take aspirin or pain killers for treatment of arthritis, and regularly smoke or consume alcohol.

See your doctor urgently if you experience any of the following:

  • prolonged vomiting, particularly if you are vomiting blood or material that looks like coffee grounds;
  • pain in the chest, jaw, neck, arm or back;
  • breathlessness;
  • black stools; or
  • difficulty swallowing.

What your doctor can do to help

If you have persistent indigestion, your doctor will examine you and may suggest tests such as an endoscopy (where a long tube is passed down your throat to view your stomach); a barium meal test (which involves swallowing a barium solution that will show up on X-rays of your chest and stomach); or an ultrasound (which can diagnose gallstones).

Your doctor can advise you whether medication is necessary to treat your indigestion, help identify any lifestyle triggers and suggest ways to modify your lifestyle and eating habits to try to avoid it.

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