We’re all too familiar with that burning sensation in our chest after a certain meal. Is it heartburn, GERD, or acid reflux? While these terms are used interchangeably, in fact, they are different conditions. Healthline defines it this way:
- Acid reflux can be a mild or serious medical condition
- GERD is another name for chronic acid reflux
- Heartburn is the symptom you get from GERD or acid reflux
Let’s look at the differences between these three very common conditions and how they’re treated.
What is Heartburn?
The American College of Gastroenterology reports that 60 million people in the U.S. regularly suffer from heartburn. This condition has nothing to do with your heart, although sometimes the pain can be mistaken for the more serious heart attack. Heartburn is also commonly called acid indigestion, but no matter what you call it, the condition can be very uncomfortable.
Heartburn comes on like a burning pain in your throat or behind your breastbone. You may feel it after eating, when lying down, or bending over. People experiencing heartburn may feel an acid or bitter taste in the mouth.
It’s the symptom you feel when the acid from inside the stomach backs up into the esophagus, or the tube that flows from your mouth into the stomach. This medical condition is known as acid reflux. When acid reflux becomes chronic, you have GERD. You will feel heartburn if you occasionally have acid reflux or are diagnosed with regular episodes of GERD. To put is simply, heartburn is the pain you feel if you have acid reflux or the more chronic GERD.
Heartburn is an uncomfortable feeling, no matter what causes it. It’s often fried or spicy foods, onions, citrus, alcohol, or other food-related triggers that cause your pain and suffering. If you’re overweight or pregnant, it can also put you more at risk for the condition.
Most people experience heartburn at least once a month. You should see your doctor if you:
- Have heartburn more than twice a week
- Over-the-counter medications don’t alleviate the symptoms
- Swallowing becomes difficult
- Experience nausea or vomiting
- Start losing weight because it’s too uncomfortable to eat
If your heartburn keeps coming back regularly, another illness called GERD, could be diagnosed.
What is GERD?
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is chronic acid reflux. If you experience acid reflux more than two times a week, you likely have GERD. The good news is that GERD is totally manageable with medications and lifestyle changes.
GERD is a little more serious because the chronic acid can damage your esophagus or even cause cancer. GERD symptoms include:
- Bad breath
- Chest pain
- Difficulty swallowing
- Persistent cough
- Tooth damage from all the acid
GERD is a chronic illness that can be caused by a number of factors such as:
- Hiatal hernia
Foods can certainly contribute to GERD, including:
- Greasy and salty foods
- High-fat food
- Spicy dishes
- Tomatoes or salsa
People of all ages, including infants can experience GERD.
What is Acid Reflux?
There is a muscle at the bottom of the tube called the lower esophageal sphincter that relaxes to allow food to flow into your stomach. Normally, the muscle should tighten up and keep your stomach contents where they belong. If the lower esophageal sphincter fails to do the job and opens even slightly, stomach acid flows north back toward your throat, burning its way back up the pipe. This condition is known as acid reflux, and it’s as uncomfortable as it sounds.
Acid reflux can irritate the tissue within the esophagus, causing you to burp, bloat, or even feel nauseous. Acid reflux can also give you a sore throat, upset stomach, and abdominal pain.
If you’re experiencing heartburn regularly, you should see your doctor. Here’s what to expect and how to treat these conditions.
How to Treat Heartburn, GERD, and Acid Reflux?
Your primary care physician may diagnose acid reflux or GERD just by hearing the description of your heartburn symptoms. Many times, you will be referred or go directly to a gastroenterologist, who is a specialist in gastrointestinal (GI) tract disorders. This specialist may order an upper GI series, if over-the-counter medications aren’t working to control your heartburn.
An upper GI series takes X-rays of the esophagus, stomach, and the upper part of the intestine to make sure there are no other health conditions to be concerned about. You may undergo an upper GI endoscopy, where your doctor inserts a flexible probe with a tiny camera down your throat to look at your esophagus. This is a good procedure to rule out any ulcers or other conditions that may be causing your heartburn.
If your doctor believes GERD is the culprit, you may have an ambulatory acid (pH) probe test that monitors the acid in your stomach. Or, you may have an esophageal manometry to measure the rhythmic muscle contractions as you swallow to determine if the esophagus is functioning properly
Your doctor may also rule out lifestyle changes before having you go through more invasive testing. For example, some lifestyle changes you can make to see if your heartburn or acid reflux improves include:
- Avoid any foods that seem to trigger the pain
- Don’t eat close to bedtime
- Don’t lie down after eating
- Drink alcohol in moderation, or better yet, not at all
- Lose weight
- Maintain good posture to avoid hunching over and compressing your abdomen
- Skip large meals, instead stick to several smaller meals
- Stop smoking
You may be currently on a medication that’s causing your heartburn, so it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about alternatives. Many people find relief with over-the-counter medications such as antacids like Gaviscon, Maalox, Mylanta, or Tums. There are also H2 blockers such as Pepcid, Tagamet, or Zantac. There are even minimally invasive surgeries that can help.
Once your doctor has ruled out other mitigating issues and diagnosed your GERD or acid reflux, and if lifestyle changes don’t work, he or she may prescribe medications that will help.
If you’re experiencing regular or chronic heartburn, please contact Nona Minimally Invasive Surgery for a consultation.