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Indigestion is often a sign of an underlying problem, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ulcers, or gallbladder disease, rather than a condition of its own.
Also called dyspepsia, it is defined as a persistent or recurrent pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen.
What Are the Symptoms of Indigestion?
The symptoms of indigestion can include:
- Burning in the stomach or upper abdomen
- Abdominal pain
- Bloating (full feeling)
- Belching and gas
- Nausea and vomiting
- Acidic taste
- Growling stomach
These symptoms may increase in times of stress.
People often have heartburn (a burning sensation deep in the chest) along with indigestion. But heartburn itself is a different symptom that may indicate another problem.
Who Is at Risk for Indigestion?
People of all ages and of both sexes are affected by indigestion. It’s extremely common. An individual’s risk increases with:
- Excess alcohol consumption
- Use of drugs that may irritate the stomach, such as aspirin and other pain relievers
- Conditions where there is an abnormality in the digestive tract, such as an ulcer
- Emotional problems, such as anxiety or depression
What Causes Indigestion?
Indigestion has many causes, including:
- Stomach cancer (rare)
- Gastroparesis (a condition where the stomach doesn’t empty properly; this often occurs in people with diabetes)
- Stomach infections
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Thyroid disease
- Aspirin and other painkillers, such as NSAIDs like ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), and naproxen (Naprosyn)
- Estrogen and oral contraceptives
- Steroid medications
- Certain antibiotics
- Thyroid medicines
- Eating too much, eating too fast, eating high-fat foods, or eating during stressful situations
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Cigarette smoking
- Stress and fatigue
Indigestion is not caused by excess stomach acid.
Swallowing excessive air when eating may increase the symptoms of belching and bloating, which are often associated with indigestion.
Sometimes people have persistent indigestion that is not related to any of these factors. This type of indigestion is called functional, or non-ulcer dyspepsia.
How Is Indigestion Diagnosed?
If you are experiencing symptoms of indigestion, make an appointment to see your doctor. Because indigestion is such a broad term, it is helpful to provide your doctor with a precise description of the discomfort you are experiencing. In describing the symptoms, try to define where in the abdomen the discomfort usually occurs.
Your doctor will rule out any underlying conditions that may be causing your symptoms. Your doctor may perform several blood tests and you may have X-rays of the stomach or small intestine. Your doctor may also suggest you have an upper endoscopy to look closely at the inside of the stomach. During the procedure, an endoscope — a flexible tube that contains a light and a camera to produce images from inside the body — is used to look inside your stomach.
What Is the Treatment for Indigestion?
Because indigestion is a symptom rather than a disease, treatment usually depends upon the underlying condition causing the indigestion.
How Can I Prevent Indigestion?
The best way to prevent indigestion is to avoid the foods and situations that seem to cause it. Keeping a food diary is helpful in identifying foods that cause indigestion. Here are some other suggestions:
- Eat small meals so the stomach does not have to work as hard or as long.
- Eat slowly.
- Avoid foods that contain high amounts of acids, such as citrus fruits and tomatoes.
- Reduce or avoid foods and beverages that contain caffeine.
- If stress is a trigger for your indigestion, learn new methods for managing stress, such as relaxation and biofeedback techniques.
- If you smoke, quit. Smoking can irritate the lining of the stomach.
- Cut back on alcohol consumption, because alcohol can also irritate the stomach lining.
- Avoid wearing tight-fitting garments, because they tend to compress the stomach, which can cause its contents to enter the esophagus.
- Don’t exercise with a full stomach. Rather, exercise before a meal or at least one hour after eating a meal.
- Don’t lie down right after eating.
- Wait at least three hours after your last meal of the day before going to bed.
- Sleep with your head elevated (at least 6 inches) above your feet and use pillows to prop yourself up. This will help allow digestive juices to flow into the intestines rather than to the esophagus.
When Should I Call the Doctor About Indigestion?
Because indigestion can be a sign of a more serious health problem, call your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Vomiting or blood in vomit (the vomit may look like coffee grounds)
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Black, tarry stools or visible blood in stools
- Severe pain in the abdomen
- Discomfort unrelated to eating
Symptoms similar to indigestion may be caused by heart attacks. If indigestion is unusual, accompanied by shortness of breath, sweating, chest pain, or pain radiating to the jaw, neck, or arm, seek medical attention immediately.