When Heartburn is Actually a Sign of Something Else

Woman with frequent heartburn realizing it could be acid reflux.

It’s really common to experience heartburn. Each month, according to one study, 60 million Americans experience heartburn. Most individuals, as a result, think that they’re experiencing a fairly commonplace condition. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, a little bit of heartburn after eating some spicy Chicken Tikka Masala is pretty normal.

But you may want to pay attention when you experience heartburn again and again. If this is happening, it might not be heartburn, it may be acid reflux.

What is acid reflux?

When a particular muscle weakens, a condition called “GERD” or gastroesophageal reflux (acid reflux) occurs. When food is moving down the esophagus, this muscle, called the lower esophageal sphincter, needs to open and then remain closed at other times (keeping the food in the stomach). It’s like a nifty valve on your esophagus, created to keep everything moving in the correct direction.

As the muscle begins to fail, food, stomach acid, and other material can go up the esophagus (which is the opposite of its ideal route). And this will cause heartburn and other symptoms.

Acid reflux and heartburn – What’s the difference?

Your stomach is normally a pretty acidic place, and that’s actually good. Digestion is made possible when this acid breaks food down. Heartburn is the occasional imbalance of your stomach acids caused by some foods (in most cases, an antacid will eliminate this).

Conversely, you have a more systemic issue with GERD. Your stomach acids could be well balanced and working normally, but because that esophageal sphincter isn’t functioning efficiently, those acids are coming back up your esophagus.

How to Treat Acid Reflux

The treatments for GERD or Acid Reflux typically depend on how severe the symptoms are. For the vast majority of people, GERD can be treated with a couple of lifestyle changes. Here are a few examples:

  • Avoid foods that cause heartburn or aggravate your other GERD symptoms.
  • When you sleep at night, raise your head.
  • Manage the symptoms with over-the-counter medicine.

A prescription strength medication will usually be the next step if these treatments fail. There are a variety of prescription options obtainable, and we will work with you to find the right one for your symptoms.

You may be referred for surgery if prescription medication isn’t working for you. There are currently minimally invasive techniques and devices available that have been shown to help patients control symptoms and reduce GERD episodes.

How do You Know It’s Acid Reflux And Not Heartburn?

Needless to say, that begs the question: how can you tell when your heartburn is a sign of something else? That is, how can you tell if you’re dealing with simple heartburn or whether it’s acid reflux?

Heartburn is actually one symptom of GERD so it can be relatively hard to tell. Here are some things to keep your eye on:

  • You have a lump in your throat. This lump is usually undigested food.
  • You’re having a hard time swallowing. This is a common symptom when the esophageal sphincter malfunctions.
  • You burp up stomach acid or even small amounts of food. Again, this is a strong indication that you’re experiencing acid reflux.
  • Your heartburn is persistent: You may be dealing with reflux if your heartburn keeps returning again and again.
  • Your symptoms keep you up at night.
  • you’re having chest pains (acid reflux can often cause chest pains, but it’s important to point out that if you experience chest pains, you should seek medical attention immediately).

It’s very likely that you’re experiencing acid reflux if these symptoms show up. You should call us for an appointment to get diagnosed if you start to experience any of these symptoms.

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.

Questions? Talk To Us.