The terms “acid reflux” and “heartburn” are often used interchangeably. There is an important difference, however – heartburn is a symptom of the condition acid reflux.
In most cases, a person chews their food, swallows it, and it travels down the esophagus. At the end of the esophagus there is a circular muscle, called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), through which the chewed food passes to reach the stomach. The LES relaxes to allow the food to pass through, then contracts back to its normal position to prevent stomach acid and food particles from backing up into the esophagus. In the case of acid reflux, however, the LES does not fully contract, and stomach contents and acid are able to splash up into the esophagus.
The esophagus is not meant to house these digestive acids, so the lining of the esophagus is more sensitive than the lining of the stomach. This means that when digestive acids and stomach contents splash into the sensitive esophagus, discomfort or even pain ensues. This discomfort often takes the form of a burning sensation. Part of the esophagus is located near the heart, meaning this burning sensation may feel like it is affecting the heart, hence the name “heartburn.”
When occasional acid reflux causes a rare bout of heartburn, over-the-counter medications are usually enough to lessen symptoms. If heartburn consistently occurs more than twice a week or interferes with daily life, however, your body may be trying to tell you about a larger problem. Frequent heartburn may indicate a chronic digestive problem. Beyond simply being bothersome, such a condition may lead to severe damage of the esophagus, throat, and mouth. If you experience such frequent or severe heartburn, schedule an appointment with your doctor, who can help you determine if there is a more serious underlying problem as well as the best course of treatment.