When Heartburn is Actually a Sign of Something Else


Heartburn is very common. Each month, according to one study, 60 million Americans cope with heartburn. Most people, as a result, think that they’re suffering from a relatively commonplace condition. And that’s not automatically a bad thing, a bit of heartburn after eating some spicy Chicken Tikka Masala is pretty normal.

But when heartburn is chronic, when you have the symptoms over and over again, you might want to pay a little closer attention. That’s because heartburn can be a sign that something else is taking place: acid reflux.

Acid Reflux – What is it?

When a particular muscle weakens, a condition called “GERD” or gastroesophageal reflux (acid reflux) occurs. When food is moving down the esophagus, this muscle, known as the lower esophageal sphincter, needs to open and then stay closed at other times (keeping the food in the stomach). It’s like your esophagus has a handy open – close valve.

As the muscle weakens, food, stomach acid, and other material can make their way up the esophagus (which is not its optimal path). And this will cause heartburn and other symptoms.

What’s the difference between heartburn and acid reflux?

Generally, it’s good that your stomach is so acidic. Digestion is made possible when this acid breaks down food. On occasion, the food you eat can throw off the acid balance in your stomach, leading to the presentation of heartburn (in most cases, an antacid will take care of this).

GERD, on the contrary, is a much more systemic problem. Your stomach acids could be well balanced and working normally, but because that esophageal sphincter isn’t functioning efficiently, those acids are coming back up your esophagus.

How is Acid Reflux Treated?

The treatments for GERD or Acid Reflux usually depend on the severity of your symptoms. A few lifestyle changes will be enough for most people who have GERD. Here are some examples:

  • Sleep with your head raised at night.
  • Treat the symptoms with over-the-counter medicine.
  • Foods that irritate your GERD or cause heartburn should be avoided.

If these treatments do not help relieve your symptoms, we could suggest a prescription-strength medication to help you. There are various prescription options available, and we will work with you to find the correct one for your symptoms.

If prescription medication does not help you control your GERD symptoms, we may refer you for surgery. There are currently minimally invasive techniques and devices available that have been shown to help patients manage symptoms and cut down on GERD episodes.

Is it Acid Reflux or Just Heartburn?

So the real question is: how can you tell when your heartburn is a symptom of something else? That is, how can you tell if you’re experiencing simple heartburn or whether it’s acid reflux?

That can be somewhat challenging, primarily because heartburn is itself a symptom of GERD. That’s why you should keep an eye out for the following:

  • You burp up stomach acid or even small amounts of food. This symptom usually points to acid reflux.
  • You have the feeling of a lump in your throat. This lump is normally undigested food.
  • You have chest pains (chest pains can be a sign of a more serious health problem and should be diagnosed by a doctor as soon as possible).
  • Your heartburn is not random: If you are dealing with heartburn on a regular basis, it may be a sign that you’re actually experiencing acid reflux.
  • Your symptoms keep you up at night.
  • Swallowing becomes a problem. This is probably because of a failure of your esophageal sphincter.

It’s very likely that you’re dealing with acid reflux if these symptoms appear. When you start to experience one or more of these symptoms, you should call us about diagnosing your condition.

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.

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