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Heartburn vs. Acid Reflux: What's the Difference?

Heartburn vs. Acid Reflux: What's the Difference?

Picture this: You’re driving down the road, and suddenly, your car stops. After coasting to the shoulder safely, your first thought is, “why?” Your car stopping is a sign that something is wrong. It could be a blown gasket, a dead battery, or an empty gas tank, among other possibilities. 

The same is true with heartburn and acid reflux. Heartburn and chest pain are symptoms that something is wrong. It could be acid reflux, an ulcer, a hiatal hernia, or a heart problem, among other possibilities.

Dr. Darrien Gaston, our board-certified specialist at Metropolitan Gastroenterology Associates in Chicago, Illinois, can help you get to the bottom of your heartburn and treat the underlying cause, acid reflux. If you experience severe or frequent heartburn, come see Dr. Gaston, and let’s check under the hood. 

All about heartburn

Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux — it’s the painful burning sensation you feel when your stomach acid sneaks past the muscle at the bottom of your esophagus and irritates the lining. Since the lower part of your esophagus is located in your chest cavity, not far from your heart, it earned the nickname “heartburn,” even though it doesn’t involve your heart in any way. 

Acid reflux 101

Acid reflux is the culprit causing your heartburn. Here’s a look at what’s happening inside.

When you swallow, food goes down your esophagus, a long tube with a muscular valve at the bottom called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). When food reaches the end of the tube, the LES opens and allows your food to enter your stomach, where digestive acids continue to break down your meal. 

If your LES is damaged or weak, it can’t stay shut, and the acidic juices in your stomach creep upward. Your stomach lining is designed to tolerate the acid, but your esophagus isn’t. The acid irritates the lining, causing heartburn.

Some acid reflux is temporary, caused by a large meal, extra spicy food, too much alcohol, or lying down after eating. These factors cause pressure to build up in your stomach, forcing acid past your LES and into your esophagus. You can resolve this type of heartburn and acid reflux by changing your eating habits.

Heartburn isn’t acid reflux’s only symptom. Along with pain in your chest, you may experience nausea, bloating, regurgitation, and upper abdominal pain.

A word about GERD

Occasional acid reflux is normal, but chronic acid reflux is a health condition that requires medical attention. Over-the-counter antacids may relieve your heartburn temporarily, but if you take them daily, Dr. Gaston can prescribe a stronger medication, and he may determine that you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), the advanced version of acid reflux.

Acid reflux that occurs more than twice weekly is typically considered GERD. In addition to heartburn, you may experience:

Dr. Gaston can treat GERD with medications, such as H2 receptor blockers or proton pump inhibitors, to reduce your stomach acid.

If you ignore your frequent heartburn, you face potential complications. Over time, your stomach acid damages the inside of your esophagus. Allowing acid reflux and GERD to progress without treatment can lead to a chronic cough or laryngitis. 

Eventually, the damage causes the tissue to change, which can narrow your esophagus or form ulcerations. Some people develop Barrett’s esophagus, a condition that alters the cells in the esophageal lining and often leads to cancer. 

If you have frequent heartburn, contact us at Metropolitan Gastroenterology Associates online or by phone. We can stop your heartburn and save your esophagus. 

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