Heartburn is a mild to severe pain in the chest that you may feel after eating a meal. It can be a burning or tightening sensation, and bending over or lying down can make it feel worse. The term “heartburn” is somewhat of a misnomer because the heart actually has nothing to do with the pain. Heartburn actually occurs in your digestive system, specifically in the esophagus.
A circular muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) lies between your esophagus and stomach. This muscle is in charge of closing your esophagus after food passes to the stomach. If this muscle is weak or doesn’t close properly, the acid from your stomach goes into your esophagus. The acid causes a burning sensation in your chest which can be mistaken for heart attack pain because the lining of your esophagus is more delicate than the lining of your stomach.
Heartburn is quite common. Most people will experience it at some point in their lives, usually after eating or at bedtime. You may take medication such as an antacid, to help relieve the pain if you experience it periodically.
Lifestyle changes like avoiding spicy or acidic foods and losing weight, for example, also manage heartburn. Heartburn can happen to anyone at any age and is common during pregnancy.
GERD, or gastrointestinal reflux disease, is more serious. Like heartburn, GERD is a condition in which the contents of the stomach refluxes, or flows back into the esophagus due to a problem with the LES. Unlike heartburn, this condition occurs on a regular basis (one to two times a week) and the pain isn’t relieved with antacids or other over-the-counter medication.
Symptoms of GERD include:
- the feeling that the contents of the stomach have come back up to the throat or mouth
- chest pain
- dry cough
- asthma-like symptoms
- trouble swallowing
The symptoms of GERD can cause so much discomfort that they disrupt a person’s daily life. Treatment for GERD consists of strong medications and lifestyle changes such as diet modification, weight loss, or smoking cessation. Most of these medications target reducing the amount of acid in the stomach. Surgery is needed to help strengthen the LES in some cases.
Acid from the stomach can damage the lining of the esophagus if GERD is left untreated. This can cause bleeding, ulcers, or scarring, which can make swallowing difficult. The acid can also cause a change in the cells in the esophagus over time. This is called Barrett’s esophagus, which can lead to often fatal esophageal cancer.
It’s important to know the differences between heartburn and GERD to get proper treatment. Consult your healthcare provider if you have heartburn two or more times a week or if over-the-counter medications don’t relieve your discomfort. Call 9-1-1 immediately if you experience difficulty breathing and pain in your arm or jaw along with pain in the chest, as this could be a heart –related problem.