Q. What’s the difference between heartburn and GERD?
A. Heartburn is the pain that results from acid reflux — when acidic contents in the stomach make their way back up to the esophagus. Normally, a sphincter muscle prevents acid from traveling backward, but when acid gets through it can irritate the lining of the esophagus, causing a burning sensation in the chest.
Joel Weinstock, chief of the Division of Gastroenterology/Hepatology at Tufts Medical Center, explains that while heartburn is a symptom, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) is a medical condition of chronic acid reflux. “GERD is a general term to describe all the things that acid reflux can do,” he says. “Heartburn is a subset of that big term.”
Heartburn is the most common symptom associated with GERD, but other symptoms can also afflict people with the condition. Some have trouble swallowing — food seems to get stuck or they feel tightness or pain when swallowing — and others experience hoarseness or a worsening of asthma. Chronic acid reflux can create scar tissue in the esophagus, and a small percentage of people with GERD develop a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, an alteration in the structure of cells lining the esophagus that carries a higher risk of esophageal cancer.
Weinstock says the vast majority of cases of GERD are caused by a weakening of the seal between the stomach and esophagus. Symptoms can be lessened with lifestyle changes and medications that neutralize or suppress stomach acid. In severe cases, surgery can help prevent acid reflux.