Heartburn, Acid Reflux, and GERD

Yes, there is a difference.

Heartburn is a symptom of GERD and acid reflux. It is a mild-to-severe pain in the chest that usually occurs after eating a meal. The heart has nothing to do with this pain, even though it is sometimes mistaken for heart attack pain. Heartburn occurs in your digestive system in the esophagus.

Infrequent heartburn can be treated with medications, such as antacids. If you experience heartburn two or more times a week or if you take antacids more than several times a week, you should be evaluated. Your heartburn may be a symptom of a more severe problem, such as acid reflux or GERD.

If your heartburn discomfort and chest pain changes or gets worse and is accompanied by pain in your arm or jaw or difficulty breathing, call 9-1-1 immediately. These symptoms can be signs of a heart attack.

Acid Reflux

The circular muscle between your esophagus and stomach, called the lower esophageal sphincter, is in charge of closing your esophagus after food passes to your stomach. If this muscle is weak or doesn’t close properly, the acid from your stomach can move backward into your esophagus. This is known as acid reflux.

Because the lining of your esophagus is more delicate than the lining of your stomach, the acid in your esophagus causes heartburn, the burning sensation in your chest.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

GERD is the chronic form of acid reflux. If you experience acid reflux more than twice a week, you probably have gastroesophageal reflux disease. Symptoms of GERD may disrupt your daily life:

  • Chest pain which occurs because the stomach acid is splashing into your esophagus.
  • Pain which worsens at rest because the acid is more likely to move into your esophagus when you lie down or bend over.
  • Pain after large meals because your stomach is overloaded and the contents have nowhere to go but up.
  • Bitter taste in the mouth and/or sore throat because the acid can make its way into the back of your throat.
  • Hoarseness because the stomach acid can irritate your vocal cords.
  • Cough because stomach acid is getting into your lungs.
  • Extra saliva because your body is trying to wash out an irritant in your esophagus.
  • Trouble swallowing because the continuous cycle of damage and healing after acid reflux can cause scarring resulting in swelling in the lower esophagus tissue and narrowing of the esophagus.

Fortunately, symptoms of GERD can usually be controlled with medication and lifestyle changes.

  • Avoid eating within 3 hours of bedtime
  • Avoid smoking and using tobacco products
  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Avoid fatty foods, milk, chocolate, mints, caffeine, carbonated drinks, citrus fruits and juices, tomato products, pepper seasoning, and alcohol.
  • Eat smaller portions
  • Avoid tight-fitting clothes around your abdomen

If GERD is left untreated, the damage from heartburn can lead to more serious conditions, such as esophagitis, ulcers, or a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, a condition in which the lining of the esophagus is replaced with abnormal tissue. People with Barrett’s esophagus are at risk for developing esophageal cancer.

Because Barrett’s esophagus does not cause any obvious symptoms, you should make an appointment to see Dr. Dumois or Tina Bruefach, PAC, for an evaluation if you have GERD.