Understanding Acid Reflux, GERD, Heartburn, and Indigestion

Acid reflux, Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), heartburn and indigestion, are all associated with annoying ‘heartburn pain’. However, are they the same or are they all different?

Acid reflux is commonly associated with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). They are not one and the same and if you have acid reflux, that doesn’t automatically mean you have GERD.

Acid reflux is an action, whereas GERD is an actual diagnosed disease. The stomach normally produces hydrochloric acid to aid in food breakdown and digestion. You also have a tiny flap, or sphincter, at the end of your esophagus which is the tube that carries food from your throat to your stomach. If the flap is too relaxed or weakened, it will not properly close. This allows that nasty stomach acid to travel upward, or reflux, into the esophagus.

Your stomach has a protective covering, so the acid won’t typically harm it; your esophagus does not. This reflux of acid is what typically causes the burning sensation in the chest area, which is where the term heartburn comes from. It’s a pain that feels like your heart is on fire, hence the name.

Next comes indigestion, which gets tagged along with heartburn, and acid reflux is also called acid indigestion.

While they all have different names and are technically different, these conditions are more or less related to each other, and so some of the causes and symptoms are the same. Let’s look at them all in a little more detail.

Acid Reflux

Acid reflux, which is often called heartburn, manifests itself as a burning pain in the chest, which happens when the stomach acid regurgitates or flows back from the stomach into the esophagus.

It is one of the most common complaints in hospitals in the United States, which is not surprising considering there are approximately 15 million Americans who suffer from acid reflux daily.

If you suffer from acid reflux attacks more than twice a week, then you may be diagnosed with Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).


GERD is also called heartburn or acid indigestion as the condition can cause chest pains that can last for up to two hours depending on the attack. This digestive disorder usually starts as acid reflux, but when the attacks become more frequent, then it is classified as GERD. It changes from being an annoying bout of heartburn to a ‘gastroesophageal disease.’

In addition to the painful sensation in the stomach or chest area, common tell-tale signs of gastroesophageal reflux disease include a bitter taste at the back of the mouth, chronic coughing, and a dry mouth. If you’ve ever had heartburn, that is exactly what this disease feels like, only worse. The symptoms seem to become more apparent if you lie down or bend over immediately after finishing a big meal.

If your esophagus keeps getting exposed to stomach acids for an extended period, the acids can start destroying your esophageal lining. Without proper treatment, this can lead to severe sores and even esophageal cancer. Although these complications are rare, they underline the importance of getting yourself examined as soon as you suspect you may be exhibiting the symptoms.


Indigestion is the pain you feel in your stomach. You may have abdominal pain from your indigestion, yet you might not have any acid reflux or heartburn problem. Everyone digests food differently.

Heartburn is caused by the esophageal sphincter not creating the proper seal to stop the acid from the stomach from spreading up into the esophagus. Alternatively, if your esophageal sphincter does create a seal, your stomach won’t have the acids rise into the esophagus. Instead, it is possible that your stomach will create air bubbles. These bubbles transfer down into the intestines and give you a feeling of gas and bloating, which is the pain you feel.

Often, lower abdominal pain due to indigestion has to do with the foods that are hard on your stomach or difficult for your body to digest. Therefore, people attribute the discomfort to eating too much. While it may be related to your intake volume, indigestion or dyspepsia are also a symptom of an underlying condition such as ulcers, GERD or even a gallbladder problem.


Heartburn is the term we usually hear the most. It’s the burning sensation in your chest which can sometimes reach into your throat. It has quite often been mistaken as a symptom of heart attack, especially when the pain is extreme. Frequent heartburn attacks can lead to gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD. However, you can suffer from GERD even if you do not have heartburn.

Now You Know the Differences and Similarities

All these conditions are sometimes even wrongfully diagnosed by medical practitioners, because of the similarities in their symptoms and causes.

However, most sufferers will agree that the symptoms of GERD, heartburn, acid reflux, and indigestion are usually observed and felt right after bingeing on the wrong types of foods and drinks.

So now you know! Just remember, GERD is a clinical diagnosis, acid reflux is the action of regurgitated acid into the esophagus, and heartburn pain and indigestion some of the many symptoms associated with them.

It is advised for anyone who does not benefit from diet changes and lifestyle modifications in an attempt to gain better control of their acid reflux problem, to contact their physician or primary care provider for further treatment options as soon as possible.

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