Recurring Heartburn Pain May Hide More Serious Ailments

heartburn pain
While heartburn can be extremely painful, it may also be a symptom of a serious health condition.

That after-dinner pain in your gut could be something as simple as heartburn, which affects almost one of every 15 people and is frequently the result of a readily treatable condition known as gastric esophageal reflux disease or GERD.

But that recurring pain may be a symptom of something else, including heart disease. If ignored or not accurately diagnosed for any length of time, the condition causing the pain can lead to serious health problems. This underscores the need for professional medical attention.

In North Phoenix, the place to get "one-stop," state-of-the-art diagnosis and treatment is the Heartburn Program at John C. Lincoln North Mountain Hospital. Patients may be referred by their primary care physician, or they can call 602-943-1111 for a referral to a heartburn specialist.

Heartburn Program Medical Director Francisco Rodriguez, MD, FACS and two board-certified internal medicine physicians who specialize in gastroenterology — Joseph Fares, MD and Juan Carlos Teran, MD — are extensively trained in both diagnosis and medical treatment of gastrointestinal, or GI, problems and in minimally invasive surgery to correct problems that cannot be resolved with medication.

GERD is initially evaluated with a test called esophagogastroduodenoscopy — or EGD, for short. Done under sedation, EGD is an examination of the lining of the esophagus, stomach and the first 20 to 25 centimeters of the upper duodenum (small intestine) with a small camera, part of a flexible endoscope inserted down the throat. Tissue samples can be obtained for microscopic examination through the endoscope.

The Heartburn Program offers Medtronic's Bravo® Catheter-Free pH Monitoring System for esophageal acid testing, which is considered the "gold standard" for pH monitoring to diagnose GERD. This not only is important to determine the seriousness of reflux disease, but essential to rule out heart problems. If the pH acidity levels in the esophagus are normal, that's a major clue that heartburn may be a symptom of cardiac issues.

Bravo uses a catheter to clip a capsule containing an acid-sensing probe to the lower esophagus. The catheter is then removed and the patient goes home and resumes normal activity. Bravo's battery-powered capsule transmits pH data for two days to a small receiver worn by the patient.

Five to seven days later, the capsule falls off and is passed in the stool. Bravo not only provides double the data captured in conventional catheter-based testing, but because patients are able to maintain regular diet and activities, the pH data collected more accurately reflects the patient's physiological condition. The receiver is then returned and uploaded into a computer program, and a report is sent to the patient's physician.

One patient who had acid reflux diagnosed by both EGD and Bravo procedures at John C. Lincoln's Heartburn Program is Farmer's Insurance agent Bob Barry of Phoenix. "The Bravo was no problem at all," he said. "They put me to sleep, I woke up and it was done! There was zero discomfort."

The tests indicated that Barry, who'd taken a combination of prescription medicines for heartburn for more than a decade, needed surgery.

"It was kind of funny in pre-op," he recalled. "The nurses all asked me who my surgeon was. When I said 'Dr. Rodriguez,' each one of them said something like 'Oh, you're so lucky. He's the best!' I figured I must be in pretty good hands."

After his surgery, Barry felt like he'd "done a few too many sit-ups," but that faded within a day or two. "That was last March, and I haven't taken medication or had a problem since. I was surprised how well the surgical procedure worked — and how quickly," he said.

For a referral to a heartburn specialist, call 602-943-1111. For more resources and health information, visit

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