Heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD are medical conditions that are often mistaken to be one and of the same. In fact, if you do a simple search online, you’ll come across countless websites and people who use those terms interchangeably. But while these conditions are closely related, they’re not exactly the same.
In simple terms, you should view acid reflux as a medical condition of the digestive system, which can be mild or serious. When it occurs, it causes heartburn as a symptom. And if acid reflux becomes chronic, an individual may be diagnosed with GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease).
Let’s take a closer look at the 3 conditions…
- What Is Acid Reflux?
The junction where the stomach and food pipe meet is a ring of muscles known as the Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES), which primarily acts as a one-way valve to control entry of food contents into the stomach.
The LES works in conjunction with the diaphragm to prevent stomach contents from splashing up into the esophagus. When food and beverages approach from above, it opens inward to allow entry into the stomach. Once the contents have passed, this muscle closes and pressure from the stomach is exerted on it to further tighten the seal.
If the LES does not close completely or becomes weak, acid produced in the stomach can move up into your esophagus, thus causing acid reflux. Therefore, when stomach acid flows back into the food pipe (esophagus), acid reflux occurs. And when acid reflux occurs, it can cause a variety of symptoms, one of which is heartburn.
- What Is Heartburn?
Also known as acid indigestion, heartburn is just one of the many symptoms that sufferers of acid reflux may experience. It’s basically a form of indigestion that’s manifested as a burning sensation in the chest.
This condition occurs when stomach acid splashes up from the stomach. Since the lining of your esophagus is more delicate than the tissues found at the stomach’s wall, the presence of acid in the food pipe will therefore cause a burning sensation in the chest cavity. The pain of heartburn can be mild or severe.
Many people experience periodic heartburns and this condition can be damaging to the esophagus if it occurs frequently. Fortunately, infrequent heartburn can be treated easily with over-the-counter antacids.
- What Is GERD?
When acid reflux happens frequently (at least twice a week), becomes chronic, interferes with your daily life, or causes damage to the esophagus over time, it’s classified as GERD. In other words, Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is essentially chronic acid reflux.
- What Causes GERD?
A number of factors can cause GERD. These include:
- Hiatal Hernia
Some health professionals believe that hiatal hernia, which is a condition that occurs when a small portion of your stomach moves up into the chest cavity through the diaphragmatic hiatus (the small opening in the diaphragm), increases the risk of developing GERD.
Recent studies have also shown that the diaphragmatic hiatus provides support to the lower end of the esophagus. As a result, hiatal hernias may weaken the LES and open the door for Gastroesophageal disease.
However, it’s important to note that many people with a hiatal hernia may not necessarily develop GERD. A hiatal hernia can nonetheless allow stomach contents to reflux more easily into the food pipe and cause occasional heartburns.
Hiatal Hernias affect people of all ages but are more common in seniors over the age of 50, obese people, and pregnant women. They can be caused by:
- and the strain or sudden physical exertion that increases pressure in the abdomen.
Treatment is usually not required unless the hernia is in danger of strangulation, meaning it becomes twisted and therefore cutting off blood supply to vital body organs. Strangulated hernias also require surgery since they pose the threat of complications like severe GERD or esophagitis (inflammation of the food pipe).
- Other Factors That Cause GERD
Other factors that have been linked to the development of GERD include dietary and lifestyle choices. For example, studies have shown that smoking causes the LES to relax, hence instigating GERD symptoms.
Foods like citrus fruits, chocolates, garlic, onions, alcoholic beverages, fried, spicy or fatty meals, peppermint, and coffee may also trigger heartburn, which is one of the most common symptoms of GERD.
What Are The Symptoms of Acid Reflux?
Now that you’re clear about the differences between acid reflux, heartburn, and GERD, you’ll realize that both heartburn and GERD occur as a result of acid reflux. So, even if you only get the occasional heartburns every other month, it would be wise to curb acid reflux in its beginning stages to prevent complications such as GERD in future.
The unfortunate thing, however, is that acid reflux causes multiple symptoms, some of which are easy to mistake for a completely different medical condition. Therefore, to spot this condition early and prevent further complications, it’s important to keep in mind all the telltale signs of acid reflux.
Common Acid Reflux Symptoms. What it Feels like?
Sometimes, people confuse the discomfort of heartburn with angina, which is basically the pain associated with heart attacks. But despite its name, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart.
As mentioned earlier, heartburn is caused by the presence of stomach acid in the esophagus and it feels like a burning sensation in the chest. Furthermore, stomach acid can travel up your neck, causing discomfort in the throat and a sour aftertaste at the back of your mouth.
In contrast, chest pain that results from cardiac arrest or heart disease is accompanied by the tightening of the chest. It also spreads to the shoulders, arms, neck, and worsens with increased physical activity.
Heartburn does not necessarily worsen with increased physical activity, although lying down or bending may exacerbate discomfort.
Another common symptom of acid reflux is regurgitation. This is simply the movement of swallowed food or liquids pushing back into your throat from the small intestines.
Although it’s normal for infants below 18 months to vomit after experiencing a gastroesophageal reflux that results in regurgitation, adults, in most cases, will not feel nauseous or vomit when regurgitation occurs. However, the backwash of stomach acid all the way to the throat may cause a burning sensation or a bitter-sour taste at the back of the mouth.
- Burping and Hiccupping
Many people with acid reflux disease tend to burp or hiccup a lot. Burping, hiccupping or belching occurs when you expel gas from the stomach through your mouth. You may also experience “wet belching” if acid reflux is accompanied with regurgitation.
Lesser Known Acid Reflux Symptoms
It’s estimated that about 25% of all people with acid reflux may develop symptoms that do not seem to be related to this condition at all. If you suspect that you’re suffering from acid reflux, be sure to go through the following list of lesser known symptoms to gauge whether you should head to the doctor.
The following is a list of lesser known acid reflux symptoms that signify whether the condition is still in its early stages or has already gone undetected for some.
- Water Bash
Sudden excess saliva, which is also known as “water bash”, can be a symptom of acid reflux. The increased amount of saliva is the body’s natural response to counteract irritating stomach acid in your esophagus.
This symptom is characterized with difficulty or pain when swallowing food. Continued exposure to stomach acid leads to scaring, which may cause the esophagus to narrow. Narrowing in turn causes strictures that interfere with food movement in the food pipe. As a result, some people with Dysphagia say that they constantly feel a lump stuck in the back of the throat after swallowing food.
Also known as indigestion, Dyspepsia is the general term for stomach discomfort. It’s usually associated with a burning sensation in the upper section of the stomach.
Dyspepsia pain can be sporadic and may be accompanied by heartburn, bloating, burping, or the feeling of nausea after eating. If you experience such symptoms, it’s important to seek medical care immediately since they potentially indicate the presence of peptic ulcers.
- Throat Problems
If stomach acid constantly seeps into the esophagus, it can cause damage to cells and other tissues located in the throat. For instance, vocal cords may experience acid scaring, thus resulting in the loss of voice or hoarseness. Although a constant sore throat is a symptom of acid reflux, it can also easily be mistaken for a cold or flu.
- Asthma Symptoms Or Respiratory Problems
Health experts believe that stomach acid can cause nerves in the chest to constrict breathing tubes. While this is the body’s natural way to prevent acid from entering breathing tubes, it can lead to asthma-like symptoms such as wheezing and dry coughing.
- Pain Worsens At Rest
Eating just before turning in for the night is not advisable. It’s not that the food doesn’t gets digested on laying down or by taking a nap. But when you do so, you’re not allowing the force of gravity to keep food down where it’s supposed to be – in the small intestines.
When that happens, food doesn’t get digested properly and the chances of acidic gastric juices seeping its way up into your esophagus increases, causing you to suffer from a bout of heartburn that worsens.
Since nutrients in food take a couple of hours to fully break down in your body, you’ll need to ensure that you’re not doing anything that can negatively affect the digestion process. Acid reflux symptoms can worsen with bending over constantly, slouching on a couch, or doing any sort of vigorous exercise.
- Post-Meal Pain
If you find yourself experiencing a burning sensation in your chest or throat areas almost immediately after a meal, then it probably a sign of acid reflux.
Think back to the last time you experienced such a burning discomfort – what were you eating at the time? If you were eating something greasy, oily, fatty, or fried, and the burning sensation you felt was the same then its acid reflux.
Your body requires more time when it comes to processing richer foods. So, you’ll need to watch your diet and make some smart food choices if you’re not looking for acid reflux to occur after each meal.
Other symptoms may include:
- Feeling sick
- Persistent cough, which is often worse at night
- Stomach fullness or bloating
- Upper abdominal pain and discomfort
Potential Complications of Acid Reflux
Acid reflux is rarely serious but if it goes untreated for a long time, the condition can cause complications like:
This is a condition that’s marked by a sharp pain in the chest when drinks and food pass through your food pipe.
- Barrett’s Esophagus
In a few cases, chronic acid reflux can cause the cell lining of the food pipe to develop an abnormal color or change in shape due to acidic irritation. This may lead to Barrett’s esophagus, which increases the risk of esophageal cancer.
It’s important that you don’t ignore any symptoms associated with acid reflux. When the condition is detected early, it can be managed easily. Early detection also reduces the chances of an individual developing the more serious GERD.
When Do Acid Reflux/Heartburn/Gerd Symptoms Occur?
- After a Rich Meal
Acid reflux symptoms mostly occur 30 to 60 minutes after eating a heavy, spicy, or fatty meal, and heartburn pain resulting from gastroesophageal reflux usually intensifies when bending over or lying down.
Just like bending, lying down makes it easier for stomach acid to wash back into your food pipe. As such, people suffering from acid reflux may experience the most pain when acid reflux episodes occur at night. This in turn can cause a lack of sleep, resulting in a poorer quality of life.
- During Pregnancy
Heartburns are common in pregnant women too, partly due to the increased pressure in the abdomen from a growing fetus, as well as hormonal changes. In most cases, heartburns will cease after delivery.
Fortunately, irritating acid reflux can be managed with antacid medications or lifestyle changes such as:
- Diet modification – avoiding spicy, fatty, or acid foods that trigger heartburn
- Losing weight
- Quitting smoking
When to See a Doctor
Almost everyone will experience heartburn from time to time. However, frequent episodes of acid reflux may indicate Gastroesophageal disease (GERD), which can lead to serious health complications if it goes untreated.
Generally, you should see your doctor if:
- You find yourself taking antacids twice a week or more frequently to control recurring heartburns.
- Severe heartburns keep you from sleeping at night.
- You have had symptoms such as nausea, sore throat, morning hoarseness, dry coughing or wheezing that last for weeks or months.
- Swallowing food feels difficult or painful.
- Acid reflux symptoms persist despite making lifestyle changes or using over-the-counter drugs.
- You have lost weight because of persistent vomiting, poor appetite, or difficulty with eating.