Heartburn is incredibly common. One study suggests that 60 million Americans suffer from heartburn every month. As a result, most people dismiss their heartburn symptoms as routine. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing–a little bit of heartburn after eating some spicy Chicken Tikka Masala is pretty normal.
But when heartburn isn’t isolated–when you experience the symptom over and over again, you might want to pay a little closer attention. That’s because heartburn could be a sign that something else is happening: acid reflux.
What is acid reflux?
Acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (or GERD), most often occurs due to the weakening of a specific muscle. This muscle, called the lower esophageal sphincter, is responsible for opening up when food is moving down the esophagus–and for staying closed any other time (so food doesn’t come back up). It’s like a handy valve on your esophagus, designed to keep everything moving in the right direction.
As the muscle weakens, food, stomach acid, and other material can make their way up the esophagus (which is the opposite of its optimal path). And this can lead to various symptoms, including heartburn.
What’s the difference between acid reflux and heartburn?
Your stomach is a naturally pretty acidic place–and that’s actually a good thing. Your stomach acid helps break down food and aids in the digestive process. Occasionally, the food you eat can throw off the acidic balance in your stomach, resulting in the presentation of heartburn (this is the kind of thing you can solve by taking a couple of antacids).
GERD, on the other hand, is a much more systemic problem. Your stomach acids could be well balanced and functioning normally–but because that esophageal sphincter isn’t doing its job, those acids are making their way up your esophagus.
How is acid reflux treated?
The treatments for GERD or Acid Reflux generally depend on the severity of your symptoms. For the vast majority of people, GERD can be treated with a few lifestyle changes. Your physician may advise you to:
- Avoid foods that cause heartburn or aggravate your other GERD symptoms.
- Sleep with your head elevated at night.
- Take over-the-counter medications to help manage symptoms.
If these treatments do not help alleviate your symptoms, your physician may recommend a prescription-strength medication to help you. There are a variety of prescription options available, so your physician will work with you to find the right one for your symptoms.
If prescription medication does not help you manage your GERD symptoms, your physician may refer you to surgery. There are currently minimally invasive techniques and devices available that have been proven to help patients manage symptoms and cut down on GERD episodes.
How do you know it’s acid reflux and not heartburn?
Of course, that begs the question: how do you know when your heartburn is a sign of something else? That is, how do you know when it’s acid reflux you’re dealing with and not simple heartburn?
That can be a bit of a challenge, mainly because heartburn is itself a symptom of GERD. That’s why you should keep an eye out for the following:
- Your heartburn is not isolated: If you are experiencing heartburn on a regular basis, it may be a sign that you’re actually dealing with acid reflux.
- You experience difficulty swallowing. This is probably because of a malfunction with your esophageal sphincter.
- You feel the sensation of a lump in your throat. This lump is usually undigested food.
- You regurgitate stomach acid or even small amounts of food. Again, this is a strong indication that you’re dealing with acid reflux.
- You have trouble sleeping at night because of these symptoms.
- You are experiencing chest pains (acid reflux can often cause chest pains–but it’s important to point out that if you experience chest pain, you should seek medical attention immediately).
All of these symptoms are strong indicators that you are not dealing only with heartburn–but with acid reflux as well. When you begin to experience one or more of these symptoms, you should talk to your doctor about diagnosing your condition.