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What's the Difference Between Heartburn and Indigestion?

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At some point in our lives, most of us have dealt with an uncomfortable feeling in our stomach or pain near our heart. Whether it’s the medications we took, the food we ate, how much or how fast we ate it, we have all experienced heartburn or indigestion.

Have you been thinking that heartburn and indigestion are the same thing? Think again. These two conditions happen in completely different parts of our body. Abram Eisenstein, MD, Director of Gastroenterology at Cooper Clinic, helps answer some common questions when it comes to the similarities and differences of heartburn and indigestion.

What is heartburn?
Heartburn is another term for acid reflux, which affects the esophagus lining. When the acid made by your stomach escapes or regurgitates back into your esophagus, you receive the burning sensation close to your heart widely known as heartburn. Either your stomach makes too much acid, or the mechanism keeping the acid in your stomach after you eat, a muscular valve called the lower esophageal sphincter, is not fully closing after a meal.

What is indigestion?
Indigestion is medically known as dyspepsia, which affects the stomach lining. It occurs in the upper abdomen just under the breast bone. A number of things can cause indigestion and it usually causes sensations of discomfort, low-grade pain or nausea. Indigestion is typically chronic and occurs off and on for most individuals.While heartburn can cause you to awaken at night with pain or discomfort, indigestion usually does not awaken you.

What are the common causes for heartburn and indigestion?
Both conditions are often caused by lifestyle decisions rather than simply the food we eat. This includes how much food we eat, how fast we eat it and how late at night we eat. The stomach is the most sensitive stress reactor, therefore stress is another common cause for heartburn or indigestion.

Other causes for each condition may be the medications we take—both prescription and over-the-counter (non-prescription). Important risk factors to note for heartburn include obesity and use of tobacco.

While some individuals can experience both heartburn and indigestion, Dr. Eisenstein estimates around 25 percent of the population get heartburn. Children suffer from heartburn more often than indigestion.

How can you treat the symptoms?
Dr. Eisenstein’s best advice is to listen to your body. If you know you experience discomfort after eating certain foods, drinking certain beverages or taking certain medications, avoid them altogether. There is no specific food type that triggers indigestion or heartburn in all patients, and it’s usually very individual. If you are prone to having heartburn or indigestion, Dr. Eisenstein highly suggests avoiding fatty or greasy foods, as they cause stress to the stomach.

When it comes to heartburn, there is no medical way to fix a faulty esophageal sphincter, therefore you must work to lower the acid in your stomach through medication. Both indigestion and heartburn may be treated with over-the-counter or prescription drugs. For starters, try taking antacids such as Rolaids, TUMS or Pepto-Bismol. If the symptoms continue, see your physician.

When should you see a physician?
Normally both indigestion and heartburn can be treated with change in diet or medications. There are two reasons you should see a doctor for indigestion: when the symptoms persist over time or if you experience alarm features. Alarm features include vomiting, fever, bleeding in vomit or a stool, weight loss or if you’ve had a previous history of severe stomach problems.

When it comes to heartburn, see a physician if the pain is chronic (happens often and continues for months at a time). If not treated, heartburn can cause serious damage to the lining of the esophagus.

To add a gastroenterology consultation to your Cooper Clinic comprehensive physical exam, please call 972.560.2667.