When You Think It’s Heartburn But It’s Really Something Else

Woman with frequent heartburn realizing it could be acid reflux.

Heartburn is incredibly common. One study indicates that 60 million Americans experience heartburn every month. Due to this, most individuals disregard their heartburn symptoms as commonplace. And it’s not that big of a problem, when you eat some seriously spicy food, a little heartburn is really normal.

But you may want to pay attention when you experience heartburn on a regular basis. That’s because heartburn can be a sign that something else is going on: acid reflux.

What is acid reflux?

Acid reflux, also called gastroesophageal reflux disease (or GERD), typically occurs because of the weakening of a particular muscle. This muscle, known as the lower esophageal sphincter, is responsible for opening up when food is going down the esophagus, and for remaining closed any other time (so food doesn’t come back up). It’s like your esophagus has a handy open – close valve.

As the muscle weakens, food, stomach acid, and other material can make their way up the esophagus (which is not its optimal direction). And this can lead to various symptoms, including heartburn.

Heartburn and acid reflux – What’s the difference?

Your stomach is normally a pretty acidic place, and that’s actually good. Your stomach acid helps break food down and aids in the digestive process. Heartburn is the occasional imbalance of your stomach acids caused by some foods (normally, an antacid will resolve this).

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

How is Acid Reflux Managed?

Depending on how severe your symptoms are, there might be numerous options for treating GERD. For the vast majority of people, GERD can be managed with a couple of changes in lifestyle. Here are some examples:

  • When you sleep at night, elevate your head.
  • Stay away from foods that cause heartburn or aggravate your other GERD symptoms.
  • Use over-the-counter medications to help manage symptoms.

If these treatments don’t help reduce your symptoms, we might recommend a prescription-strength medication to help you. We will work with you to find the best prescription medication for you.

You might be referred for surgery if prescription medication isn’t working for you. GERD symptoms can be decreased and symptoms can be controlled with minimally invasive surgery and specialized devices.

How can you tell if It’s Acid Reflux And Not Heartburn?

So the real question is: are your heartburn symptoms a sign that something else is happening? That is, how do you know when it’s acid reflux you’re coping with and not simple heartburn?

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

  • You have a lump in your throat. Normally, indigested food is the cause.
  • You have chest pains (chest pains can be a sign of a more serious health problem and should be diagnosed by a doctor immediately).
  • You have trouble sleeping at night because of these symptoms.
  • Your heartburn isn’t random: You may be dealing with reflux if your heartburn keeps coming back over and over.
  • You’re having a hard time swallowing. This is a common symptom when the esophageal sphincter fails.
  • You burp up stomach acid or even small amounts of food. Again, this is a sign that you’re experiencing acid reflux.

All of these symptoms are solid signs that you’re not only dealing with heartburn, but with acid reflux as well. When you begin to experience one or more of these symptoms, you should call us about diagnosing your condition.

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.