Indigestion (also known as dyspepsia) is the term used to describe pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen or chest, generally occurring soon after meals.
You get indigestion when the acid in your stomach refluxes (returns) back up your oesophagus (the pipe that goes from your mouth to your stomach). This happens if the sphincter (valve) at the top of your stomach doesn’t work properly. The medical term for this condition is gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). You can also get indigestion when your stomach is irritated or inflamed. Although indigestion is most common after meals, you can get it at any time.
If you have indigestion you may have the following symptoms:
Depending on the cause of your indigestion, your symptoms may go very quickly, come and go, or they may be regular and last for a long time.
Visit your GP for advice if you have:
Your stomach acid helps you to digest food and protects you against infection. A layer of mucus lines your stomach, oesophagus and bowel to act as a barrier against this acid. If the mucous layer is damaged, your stomach acid can irritate the tissues underneath; or if the valve at the top of your stomach isn’t working properly, stomach acid can irritate the oesophagus, leading to indigestion.
Some of the following can trigger symptoms of indigestion:
Some medical conditions can cause symptoms of indigestion and heartburn.
Peptic ulcers are ulcers in your stomach or the first part of your small intestine (duodenum). They occur when the lining of either your stomach or your duodenum is damaged and becomes inflamed. Peptic ulcers are usually caused by a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). These bacteria live in the mucous layer of your stomach. Although they don't always cause symptoms, they can cause peptic ulcers in some people. Find more information about peptic ulcers.
Heartburn can be triggered by hiatus hernia. This happens when part of your stomach or sphincter moves up into your chest cavity, causing reflux. Find more information about hiatus hernias.
Certain types of cancer can also trigger the symptoms of indigestion, but this is rare.
As many as 80 percent of pregnant women suffer from indigestion. This may be triggered by high levels of the female hormones progesterone and oestrogen, which relax your sphincter.
Symptoms are usually first experienced late in the first trimester (the first 12 weeks of pregnancy) and can continue throughout the remaining six months. The symptoms of indigestion usually go away within four weeks of giving birth.
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. They may also ask you about your medical history.
If lifestyle changes and medicines don't help to improve your symptoms, your GP may recommend further tests, such as:
There are a few things you can do to help reduce the symptoms of indigestion, including:
You can buy a range of indigestion medicines from your pharmacist without a prescription. Always read the accompanying consumer medicines information leaflet and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.
Antacids are medicines that can relieve symptoms of indigestion by neutralising acid in your stomach. They can be taken as either liquid or tablets that can be swallowed or chewed. If antacids don't work, or if you need to take large quantities to relieve your symptoms, your pharmacist may recommend H2 blockers. These work by reducing the amount of acid that your stomach produces.
Another option is a low dose of a proton pump inhibitor. Proton pump inhibitors work by stopping your stomach producing acid. The proton pump inhibitors available without a prescription are pantoprazole (Somac) and rabeprazole (Pariet). These over-the-counter packs can be taken for a maximum of two weeks. See your GP if symptoms persist beyond this time.
If you need to take medicines for indigestion regularly, more than two or three times a week, your doctor may prescribe higher doses of proton pump inhibitors or H2 blockers to be used for a month. The doctor can then reassess whether you need to continue using this medication at this dose.
If a proton pump inhibitor is controlling your symptoms, your GP can prescribe you one for long-term use.
Another type of medicine you may be prescribed along with your proton pump inhibitor is a prokinetic or motility stimulant, which quickens the rate at which your stomach empties and helps stop your stomach contents refluxing back into your oesophagus.
If you have an H. Pylori infection, your GP may recommend having triple therapy to kill off the bacterial infection. This usually means taking a seven-day course of a proton pump inhibitor combined with two different antibiotics.
Always read the accompanying consumer medicines information leaflet and if you have any questions or concerns ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice.
Surgery for indigestion or heartburn is rare. Your doctor will usually only recommend it if medicines don't work or if you don't want to take proton pump inhibitors for long periods of time, and you have weighed up the risks of having surgery against the benefits.
If you have a hiatus hernia and your symptoms are severe, your GP may refer you to a surgeon, who may recommend surgery to repair the hernia.
Some people find that talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and psychotherapy, may help reduce the symptoms of indigestion.
Gastroenterological Society of Australia
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Last published: 30 July 2011
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