What's the difference between heartburn and acid reflux?

Heartburn and Acid Reflux: Like Fire and Smoke

Some LESs don't form a tight seal when closed, and others will relax randomly when there is still work to be done. When the LES relaxes with food still in the stomach, pressure from the fullness of the stomach, physical movement or even tight-fitting clothes can force the contents back up through the relaxed valve into your esophagus.

Although used interchangeably, there is a difference between heartburn and acid reflux. So let's clear this up:

  • Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid regurgitates up into the esophagus. Reflux is the cause of heartburn. However, you may feel no pain at all when reflux occurs.
  • Heartburn is a sensation of tightness, pain or discomfort in the middle of the chest that can -- but doesn't always -- follow an occurrence of acid reflux. Heartburn is exactly what it would feel like if acid ate away at the lining of your esophagus, because that's what's happening.

While you can and do likely have occasional bouts of acid reflux without heartburn, you can't have heartburn without acid reflux. Acid reflux is the cause, and heartburn is a potential sensation. Reflux: the fire; heartburn: the smoke. The pain of heartburn is the irritation or damage taking place to your esophagus by the refluxed stomach acid.

If you have frequent acid reflux, you may have acid reflux disease. Acid reflux disease and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) are the same thing. Both terms refer to a chronic condition relating to the LES and exacerbated by lifestyle factors, such as obesity, consumption of acidic foods, smoking and eating large portions during a single meal.

Have more questions about heartburn, GERD and the digestive system? See the next page for answers.

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