It's that familiar burning or painful sensation in the chest that pretty much everyone has experienced often enough to immediately declare it a case of heartburn. However, some people aren't sure if what the heartburn they feel is normal (caused by overeating) or a more serious, common condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Heartburn Is Normal
Heartburn by itself is fairly easy to understand, being simply a painful burning in chest or throat due to acid from the stomach that moves upward into the esophagus. Everyone can experience heartburn at one time or another because there is a normal level of acid from the stomach that can reflux into the upper body. A number of common activities, including overeating, can cause heartburn.
Although heartburn can be annoying and occasionally painful enough to make it hard to sleep or do other activities, it is usually not a cause for concern. There are times when heartburn may persist for a 24-hour period or more, but it does not yet qualify as acid reflux disease.
When Heartburn Becomes Acid Reflux
There is a fairly simple way to know if heartburn is caused by gastroesophageal acid reflux disease, commonly known as acid reflux. As Andrew Gawron, MD, a gastroenterologist with University of Utah Health puts it, "The definition of gastroesophageal acid reflux disease is when reflux of stomach contents into the esophagus cause troublesome symptoms or complications that impact the quality of life."
In other words, if heartburn is frequent enough that it causes problems that make your quality of life diminished, you may have acid reflux disease. This might mean that you're unable to sleep at night because of pain, or you might go so far as to find that acid is eating away at the lining of the throat or esophagus. In some cases, GERD can also predispose someone to a pre-cancerous condition in the esophagus called Barrett's esophagus.
Treating Acid Reflux
Roughly 40% of Americans will suffer from acid reflux disease at one time or another. Luckily, for the most part, it is something that can be treated with simple lifestyle and dietary changes. One of these changes includes weight loss. Being overweight or obese increases abdominal pressure and is associated with reflux.
Another lifestyle change involves diet. However, according to Dr. Gawron, "There's no magic diet. There are major culprits that we think of, like alcohol, coffee, caffeine, chocolate, spicy foods, that people enjoy to excess and can cause acid reflux. I tell patients they have to choose whether or not they want to avoid foods that cause them symptoms."
There are also over-the-counter medications known as histamine antagonists and proton pump inhibitors that can be very effective at reducing the amount of acid produced and help to reduce inflammation in people with pathologic acid reflux disease.
Beyond Acid Reflux
When heartburn becomes frequent and problematic, it is usually a symptom of acid reflux disease. When heartburn is accompanied by "warning" signs, such as bleeding, weight loss, or vomiting, it is critical that patients see a specialist, as conditions such as cancer will need to be ruled out. In these situations, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible.