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?
Burning in the stomach or upper abdomen
Bloating (full feeling)
Belching and gas
Nausea and vomiting
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), other conditions where there is an abnormality in the digestive tract such as an ulcer and emotional problems such as anxiety or depression.
Stomach cancer (rare)
Gastroparesis (a condition where the stomach doesn't empty properly; this often occurs in diabetics)
Irritable bowel syndrome
Aspirin and many other painkillers
Estrogen and oral contraceptives
Eating too much, eating too fast, eating high-fat foods or eating during stressful situations
Drinking too much alcohol
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.
If you are experiencing symptoms of indigestion, make an appointment to see your doctor to rule out a more serious condition. 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. Simply reporting pain in the stomach is not detailed enough for your doctor to help identify and treat your problem.
First, your doctor must rule out any underlying conditions. Your doctor may perform several blood tests and you may have X-rays of the stomach or small intestine. Your doctor may also use an instrument to look closely at the inside of the stomach, a procedure called an upper endoscopy. An endoscope, a flexible tube that contains a light and a camera to produce images from inside the body, is used in this procedure.
Because indigestion is a symptom rather than a disease, treatment usually depends upon the underlying condition causing the indigestion.
Often, episodes of indigestion go away within hours without medical attention. However, if your symptoms become worse, you should consult a doctor. Avoiding foods and situations that cause indigestion are the best ways to treat it. Here are some helpful tips to alleviate indigestion:
Try not to chew with your mouth open, talk while chewing or eat too fast. This causes you to swallow too much air, which can aggravate indigestion.
Drink fluids after rather than during meals.
Avoid late-night eating.
Try to relax after meals.
Avoid spicy foods.
If indigestion is not relieved after making these changes, your doctor may prescribe medications to alleviate your symptoms.
The best way to prevent indigestion is to avoid the foods and situations that seem to cause indigestion. 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.
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, re-evaluating your lifestyle may help to reduce stress. Learn new methods for managing stress, such as relaxation and biofeedback techniques.
Smokers should consider quitting smoking, or at least not smoking right before or after eating, as smoking can irritate the stomach lining.
Cut back on alcohol consumption because alcohol can 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.
Do not exercise with a full stomach. Rather, exercise before a meal or at least one hour after eating a meal.
Do not 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.
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).
Loss of appetite.
Black, tarry stools or visible blood in stools.
Severe pain in upper right abdomen.
Pain in upper or lower right 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 or pain radiating to the jaw, neck or arm, seek medical attention immediately.
Reviewed by The Cleveland Clinic Department of Gastroenterology.
Edited by Cynthia Haines, MD, WebMD, March 2006.
SOURCES: National Institutes of Health. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.
Revised: 11/03/09. Copyright © 2006 Clinical Research Associates of Tidewater. All rights reserved.