Are GERD, Acid Reflux, and Heartburn the Same?

by: Memorial Staff
woman placing hands on chest

More than 65 million U.S. adults and one in five South Floridians experience the painful burning symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

If you’re one of them, you may be familiar with terms like GERD, acid reflux, and heartburn. While the words are often used interchangeably, they each mean something different.

  • Acid reflux: Backflow of stomach acid into the esophagus. It is a common condition that can range from mild to serious.
  • GERD: Chronic acid reflux that happens at least twice a week.
  • Heartburn: A symptom of acid reflux and GERD. It is a feeling of burning discomfort in the chest caused by the backflow of stomach acid.

GERD Symptoms

The esophagus is the tube connecting your mouth and stomach. At the entrance to the stomach is a valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which closes as soon as food or drink passes through.

If it doesn’t close all the way or opens too often, stomach acid can backflow into the esophagus. Acid reflux can irritate the lining of the esophagus and over time cause tissue damage.

Moderate to severe acid reflux that occurs at least once or twice a week may be a sign of GERD.

Common symptoms of GERD include:

  • Chest pain
  • Chronic cough
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Feeling like there’s a lump in your throat
  • Heartburn – usually after eating and may be worse at night
  • Recurring pulmonary infections
  • Regurgitation of food or sour liquid

woman holding throat GERD acid reflux heartburn

What You Can Do To Stop the Burn

Millions of people experience acid reflux from time to time, and many people manage the discomfort with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications. Others may need prescription medications or anti-reflux surgery to ease symptoms.

Some of the most common risk factors for GERD include:

  • being overweight or obese,
  • eating large meals or eating right before bedtime,
  • certain foods and beverages,
  • smoking,
  • certain medications, and
  • being pregnant.

Follow these steps to try to relieve your symptoms:

  • Quit smoking.
  • Take steps to lose weight, including exercise and diet changes.
  • Eat smaller meals more frequently and avoid eating 2-3 hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid or reduce some foods such as citrus, tomato, chocolate, mint, garlic, onions, spicy food, fried food and fatty foods.
  • Avoid or reduce some beverages such as alcohol, carbonated drinks, coffee and tea.
  • Don’t wear tight clothes or belts.
  • Elevate the head of your bed by 4-6 inches.

In addition, be aware that some medications — like over-the-counter painkillers and some prescription blood pressure medications — can be a trigger for acid reflux and heartburn.

So talk to your doctor about your symptoms, how often you’re experiencing acid reflux, and whether the medicines you take may be a contributing factor. Your doctor should refer you to a specialist who will work with you to choose the best course of treatment, if lifestyle changes will work for you, and provide you with medical guidance to help you successfully find relief.

Options for Anti Reflux Surgery

While medication may provide relief for some people, they may still opt for surgery so they don’t have to depend on medications for life. If over-the-counter or prescription medications don't help, your doctor will refer you to a specialist to perform one of the following common surgeries.

Hiatal Hernia Surgery

A muscle called the diaphragm separates your esophagus in your chest from your stomach in your abdomen. A hiatal hernia occurs when part of the stomach moves above the diaphragm into your chest. The displacement weakens the lower esophageal sphincter muscle at the top of your stomach that keeps acid from flowing backward. Hiatal hernia surgery pulls the stomach back into the abdomen and repairs or reinforces the muscle. Afterward, the lower esophageal sphincter muscle can work properly to prevent acid reflux.

LINX Surgery

During magnetic sphincter augmentation surgery (LINX), the surgeon puts a small device around the lower esophageal sphincter muscle. The implant expands and contracts to squeeze the lower esophageal sphincter muscle together, preventing reflux.

Nissen Fundoplication

Nissen fundoplication surgery is a standard treatment where the surgeon takes the upper part of your stomach and wraps it around the outside of the lower esophagus. This procedure strengthens the lower esophageal sphincter muscle to prevent acid reflux.

For more information, please visit our General Surgery page.

Disclaimer: The ideas and opinions presented in this blog post do not reflect the ideas and opinions of Memorial Healthcare System.