Burning Sensation in Stomach

A burning sensation in the stomach can be a sign of digestive problems like gastritis, GERD, food allergies or intolerances, or emotional stress. This article discusses the causes, diagnosis and treatments of digestive problems that create painful sensations in the stomach.

The stomach is a J-shaped muscular organ located in the abdominal cavity between the esophagus and small intestine. Two of the main functions of the stomach are to receive food from the esophageal sphincter and to expand to store food. The stomach also secretes enzymes and acids, which aid in proper digestion. Pepsin is a principal enzyme the stomach secretes that helps to digest proteins, while hydrochloric acid is an acid secreted by the stomach that helps eliminate harmful bacteria and maintain proper ph balance.

In the stomach, food mixes with water and gastric juices to assist in the breakdown of food into smaller particles called chyme. This chyme moves into the small intestine through the pyloric sphincter, located at the end of the stomach, before it travels to the small intestines.

Causes of Burning Sensation in Stomach

Many conditions can contribute to a burning sensation in the stomach. Medical history and current symptoms are important elements which physicians use to determine what is causing this painful symptom. Here are some of the most common reasons for a burning sensation in the stomach.

Gastritis - When an irritated, damaged, or inflamed area in the lining of the stomach is exposed to gastric juices, gastritis can develop. Pain from gastritis varies in individuals but the most common reported symptoms include the following:

  • A burning feeling in the stomach after meals or when lying down.
  • Nausea
  • Bloating
  • Indigestion
  • Abdominal pain
  • Hiccups
  • A loss of appetite

H. pylori bacteria (Helicobacter pylori) cause a form of gastritis that resembles heartburn. Pernicious anemia, smoking, heavy use of alcohol, food intolerance or food allergy, Crohn's disease, celiac disease, and other underlying health conditions can also result in gastritis.

To diagnose gastritis the physician may recommend an additional test called an endoscopy. For an upper endoscopy, the physician inserts a thin, flexible tube that contains a small camera through the patient's mouth or nose to advance the tube to the patient's stomach. The endoscopy allows the physician to check the lining of the esophagus and stomach for inflammation and obtain a tissue sample if needed. 

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) - Gastroesophageal reflux occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter opens inappropriately or fails to close completely. When reflux occurs, digestive acids rise up into the esophagus causing the common burning sensation known as heartburn.

Known factors that contribute to the development of GERD include the following:

  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy
  • Smoking
  • Spicy, citrus, and tomato-based foods

To rule out GERD a physician may need to perform additional tests on patients who report symptoms of heartburn that worsen at night or when lying down. A ph study, barium x-ray, and upper endoscopy are common tests physicians used to diagnose GERD. The diagnosis is confirmed when the medications designed to suppress the production of stomach acid and reduces a patient's symptoms.

Food allergy or intolerance -Burning sensations in the chest and upper abdomen that occur after eating can result from food allergies or food intolerances. When an individual complains of burning sensations in the stomach that occur with vomiting and/or diarrhea, the physician may order a series of skin tests to rule out food allergies.

Medications or drugs - Medications like aspirin and Tylenol and excessive alcohol use and smoking can increase stomach pain and irritation. In addition, anti-inflammatory drugs like Ibuprofen and Naproxen can break down the protective lining of the stomach putting the individual at risk for gastritis.

Emotional stress -Many digestive problems are a result of poorly managed emotional stress. Stress can slow down the digestion of food to where the stomach acids remain in the stomach, increasing the chance that reflux will occur. A physician can diagnose emotional stress with a detailed health interview or mental health examination to determine whether stress is the underlying cause of the burning stomach pain.

Treatments of Burning Sensation in Stomach

The treatment of choice for a burning sensation in the stomach is based on the patient's medical history and current symptoms. Blood test, endoscopies, upper gastrointestinal x-rays, and other procedures help rule out serious underlying medical diseases. Swift treatment of the symptoms can help to prevent potential long-term medical complications. Here are four ways of treatment for a burning sensation in the stomach.

  • Medications - Antacids are the first medical line of treatment to control the amount of acid. If antacids are not effective then the physician will prescribe H2 blockers, like Tagament, Zantac, and Pepcid. These medications work to reduce the production of stomach acid. If gastritis is believed to be a result of H. pylori bacteria, the physician will prescribe antibiotics to treat the bacterial infection.
  • Diet - Avoiding foods that irritate the stomach such as spicy foods, tomato-based foods, citrus foods, chocolate, coffee, mint, garlic and onions may help reduce heartburn symptoms. Snacking on bland foods like crackers, corn, and rice can also help reduce reflux.
  • Emotion regulation - Learning to manage stress with techniques like yoga, deep breathing, prayer and meditation can help the person relax his or her body and decrease the build-up of stomach acid.
  • Change of lifestyle - Losing weight may reduce burning sensations in the stomach in overweight or obese individuals by reducing the pressure on the esophageal sphincter. Regular exercise, eliminating cigarette smoking and reducing alcohol intake also help to improve digestive health.