Frequent heartburn increases the risk of cancers of the throat and vocal cord among nondrinkers and nonsmokers, according to a new study.

The research, published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research, also indicated that the use of antacids has a protective effect against these cancers, while prescription medications do not.

Heartburn, medically known as pyrosis or acid indigestion, is an uncomfortable warm and burning sensation in the chest, usually just behind the sternum that normally comes in waves. Although the pain starts in the chest area, it can make its way up to the neck, throat, and jaw.

Past research suggested that lifestyle training may reduce the pain of heartburn, and that patients may benefit more from interventions rather than just taking medication.

Scott M. Langevin, Ph.D., postdoctoral research fellow at Brown University in Providence, R.I., said:

"Previous studies examining gastric reflux and cancers of the head and neck have generated mixed results. Most of those studies had either few numbers of cases or they were not adjusted for confounding factors.

"Ours is a large, population-based study with robust parameters that strongly suggests gastric reflux, which causes frequent heartburn, is an independent risk factor for cancers of the pharynx (throat) and larynx (vocal cord)," Langevin added.

Langevin and his team identified 631 patients from a large group of participants involved in a population-based, case-control study in the greater Boston area. Of these subjects, 468 had throat cancer and 163 had cancers of the vocal cord.

The researchers then used town records to recruit 1,234 control subjects matched for age and gender who had no previous history of cancer.

A questionnaire was filled out by each of the volunteers where they reported their history of heartburn, habits of smoking and drinking, family history of cancer, and sociodemographic information.

Knowing that some head and neck cancers result from infection with human papillomavirus 16 (HPV 16), the scientists analyzed all participants' blood to determine whether antigens to HPV 16 viral proteins were present.

According to the results, a history of frequent heartburn was associated with a 78% higher risk for cancers of the throat and vocal cord among volunteers who were neither heavy smokers nor drinkers.

Among the subjects with frequent heartburn, the experts discovered that taking antacids had a protective effect - a 41% lower likelihood of getting cancers of the throat and vocal cord.

However, both prescription medications and home remedies did not have a protective effect.

The protective effect of antacids was constant, regardless of the patients':
  • drinking status
  • smoking status
  • HPV 16 status
  • tumor site
Langevin concluded:

"Additional studies are needed to validate the chemopreventive effects of antacids among patients with frequent heartburn. The identification of gastric reflux as a risk factor for throat and vocal cord cancers, however, may have implications in terms of risk stratification and identification of high-risk patients."

A previous report suggested that patients can banish frequent heartburn by burning more calories .

Written by Sarah Glynn