The symptoms of heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) are fairly similar, although they differ in their severity and persistence. Both conditions are caused by reflux of acid from the stomach into the lower portion of the esophagus. However, GERD is a chronic condition in which heartburn occurs two to three times a week or more, while having occasional reflux on its own is not usually a cause for concern.
Heartburn vs GERD
Heartburn refers to a burning or uncomfortable situation in the chest that tends to occur after eating, as a result of acid reflux. If you experience heartburn, it can be difficult to know whether you are experiencing a normal amount of acid reflux or if your symptoms may be a sign of GERD. Some factors that may distinguish GERD from heartburn include:
- Having heartburn 2-3 times a week or more for more than 2 weeks
- Heartburn feels worse or is more frequent than in the past
- Heartburn associated with difficulty swallowing or hoarseness
- Symptoms persist even after taking over-the-counter medication
- Waking up at night due to heartburn
- Symptoms that interfere with your lifestyle or activities
If you are experiencing any of the above issues, your heartburn should be evaluated by a physician.
To determine whether or not you have GERD, your doctor will ask you about your symptoms, ask you about your medical history, and perform a physical examination. From there, the physician may order a number of diagnostic tests, including:
- A pH probe test, which evaluates how acidic the esophagus is over a certain period of time
- An upper GI tract x-ray, which gives a non-invasive view of the structure of the esophagus and stomach
- Endoscopy, in which a camera is inserted into the esophagus and stomach
- Esophageal motility testing, or manometry, which evaluates how much the esophagus moves
You may or may not need some of these tests, depending on your symptoms.
Importance of Treatment for GERD
GERD is a significant medical condition that requires treatment. Because GERD causes the esophagus to be frequently exposed to acid stomach secretions that it is not equipped to withstand, the condition can lead to a number of serious conditions if left untreated. Potential complications include narrowing of the esophagus or the development of Barrett’s esophagus, a precancerous condition.
Most of the time, GERD can be treated with a combination of medication, either over-the-counter or prescription and lifestyle changes. Together, these treatments can alleviate symptoms and prevent future episodes of acid reflux. In severe cases, surgical treatment may be required.