When Heartburn is Actually a Sign of Something Else

Woman with frequent heartburn realizing it could be acid reflux.

Heartburn is extremely common. Every month, according to one study, 60 million Americans cope with heartburn. Due to this, most people dismiss their heartburn symptoms as routine. And it’s not that big of a deal, when you eat some seriously spicy food, a bit of heartburn is fairly normal.

But you might want to pay attention when you have heartburn again and again. That’s because heartburn could be a sign that something else is happening: acid reflux.

What is acid reflux?

When a certain muscle weakens, a condition known as “GERD” or gastroesophageal reflux (acid reflux) develops. This muscle, known as the lower esophageal sphincter, is responsible for opening 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 nifty valve on your esophagus, designed to keep everything moving in the correct direction.

Stomach acids, food, and other material can find their way up the esophagus (not where you want it) as this muscle weakens. And this will trigger heartburn and other symptoms.

Heartburn and acid reflux – What’s the difference?

In general, it’s good that your stomach is so acidic. Digestion is made possible when this acid breaks food down. On occasion, the food you eat can throw off the acid balance in your stomach, leading to the symptoms of heartburn (in most cases, an antacid will resolve this).

Conversely, you have a more systemic issue with GERD. When your esophageal sphincter isn’t working properly, even well-balanced stomach acids can find their way back up.

How to Treat Acid Reflux

The treatments for GERD or Acid Reflux generally depend on how severe the symptoms are. For most people, GERD can be managed with a couple of changes in lifestyle. We might advise you to:

  • Avoid foods that cause heartburn or aggravate your other GERD symptoms.
  • Take over-the-counter medications to help manage symptoms.
  • Sleep with your head elevated at night.

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

You may be referred for surgery if prescription medication isn’t working for you. GERD symptoms can be reduced and symptoms can be managed with minimally invasive surgery and specialized devices.

Is it Acid Reflux or Just Heartburn?

So the real question is: are your heartburn symptoms an indication that something else is happening? That is, how can you tell when it’s acid reflux you’re dealing with and not simple heartburn?

Heartburn is actually one symptom of GERD so it can be relatively hard to tell. That’s why you should keep an eye out for the following:

  • You have trouble sleeping at night because of these symptoms.
  • You have chest pains (chest pains can be a sign of a more serious health issue and should be diagnosed by a doctor right away).
  • You have a lump in your throat. Normally, indigested food is the cause.
  • Your heartburn is recurring: You might be dealing with reflux if your heartburn keeps coming back again and again.
  • Swallowing becomes a challenge. This is a common symptom when the esophageal sphincter fails.
  • You burp up stomach acid or even small amounts of food. This symptom usually points to acid reflux.

It’s very likely that you’re experiencing acid reflux if these symptoms appear. When you begin to experience one or more of these symptoms, you should talk to 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.