When most people think about acid reflux, they immediately think of heartburn and use the words interchangeably. Although reflux and heartburn are related, they’re not the same thing.
Heartburn is actually just a symptom of acid reflux. Heartburn is an uncomfortable or painful burning sensation in the chest that usually occurs after a meal. Just how much it hurts varies not only from person to person, but also from instance to instance. It can range from a mild irritation to an intense, searing pain.
Here’s the easiest way to remember the difference between heartburn and acid reflux: Heartburn is the sensation, while acid reflux is the movement or action that causesthe sensation.
The term heartburn can be somewhat misleading. First, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart; it’s actually related to the digestive system, specifically the esophagus. Second, heartburn doesn’t necessarily burn; it can be a general pain or a feeling of tightness in the chest. Many patients have rushed to the hospital thinking they were having a heart attack, only to find out it was actually an acute case of heartburn. These people have a hard time believing that a feeling that strong can “just” be heartburn.
If you think you’re having a heart attack, take it very seriously and call 911 immediately. Symptoms of a heart attack can be subtle at first. Don’t try to “tough it out.” One symptom of heart attack is chest discomfort or pain. This may feel like pressure, fullness, or squeezing in the middle of your chest. The discomfort or pain may come and go. Other symptoms include body pain, anxiety, stomach illness, lightheadedness, sweating, and shortness of breath. Bottom line: Assume the symptoms you’re experiencing may be heart-related until a physician has ruled it out.
Most people will experience at least one case of heartburn in their lifetimes. Lucky for them, occasional heartburn usually isn’t anything to worry about and often can be cleared up with an antacid.
If you experience heartburn on a regular basis, you probably have acid reflux. Just like heartburn, acid reflux varies significantly in severity and frequency. It can be a daily problem that impacts your everyday life, or it can be a mild, occasional nuisance with little to no impact on your activities.
Severe, long-term cases of heartburn can lead to a diagnosis of gastroesophageal refluxdisease (GERD). The condition is about as pleasant as the term. Go ahead and say it, “GERD.” Rhymes with turd. Usually patients with GERD suffer from heartburn or other reflux symptoms at least twice a week. If you find that you’re suffering from reflux on a regular basis, go to your doctor. Untreated reflux can develop into GERD, which can lead to more serious, long-term health issues.
What acid reflux does
Acid reflux is a digestive disorder that involves the esophagus and stomach. When you eat or drink, the contents travel down your esophagus and into your stomach. At the entrance to your stomach is a ring of muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The LES is essentially a valve for the stomach. It relaxes to allow food or fluid to pass into the stomach and then tightens to prevent stomach contents from escaping up the esophagus.
When you have acid reflux, that usually means your LES is not functioning properly. When the LES is functioning normally, it closes after food or fluid passes. For people with acid reflux, this normal function is prevented. In some cases, this is a result of the muscles being weakened. In other cases, it’s because of changes in abdominal pressure, especially in the stomach. Other times, the LES malfunctions and begins opening and closing itself. Regardless of the cause, the malfunction allows for your stomach contents, including stomach acid, to flow back into the esophagus.
The esophagus is above the stomach, so from a gravitational standpoint, it doesn’t seem logical, even with a malfunctioning LES, that anything from the stomach would move back up. This just goes to show the power of what’s going on in the stomach. The stomach functions like a washing machine — it’s powerful. That’s why you hear so much noise if you’ve ever had your ear near someone’s stomach after a meal. When you combine churning stomach acid with a malfunctioning LES, a little reflux is inevitable, despite gravity.
A symptom of acid reflux, besides heartburn, is dyspepsia (stomach discomfort, usually of the upper abdomen). Heartburn can also create a feeling of fullness or bloating, burping, and nausea, usually after eating. This can lead to regurgitation, which is another common acid reflux symptom. Regurgitation occurs when the stomach’s contents, including stomach acid, back up into the throat or mouth. Often, this results in a sour or bitter taste. In severe cases, regurgitation will cause vomiting.
Although regurgitation is the most common symptom, several other symptoms could be due to acid reflux. These include
· Chest pain
- Dental erosion
- Difficulty swallowing
- Excess saliva
- Sore throat