Better known by its common nickname, “heartburn,” acid reflux happens when stomach acids move backward — or reflux — into your esophagus. While most of us have heartburn from time to time, like after eating a particularly heavy or spicy meal, chronic acid reflux has another name — gastrointestinal esophageal reflux disease (GERD) — and it can have serious complications.
GERD often causes intense pain, usually in the center of the chest, and it’s often mistaken for a heart attack. Understanding the link between GERD and chest pain can help you understand the symptoms you’re experiencing, and it’s also essential for getting the right treatment.
At TLC Medical Group Inc. in Port St. Lucie, Florida, Anthony B. Lewis MD, FACC and his team use advanced techniques and technology to determine the cause of chest pain and related symptoms. Here’s what they want you to know about the association between GERD and the painful symptoms it causes.
Most people think of the esophagus as a tube that lets food pass from your mouth to your stomach. But the way it does that is a bit more complicated.
Where the esophagus attaches to your stomach, there’s a muscular opening called the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES. Normally, the LES opens to allow food to pass into the stomach, then closes tightly to prevent acids (and partially digested food) from moving backward. If the LES is weak or damaged, it can’t close completely, which means acids can flow backward, or reflux.
Although the tissue lining your stomach is impervious to strong digestive acids, your esophagus tissue is not. When acids wash backwards into the esophagus, they cause irritation along with sharp, sometimes intense pain. Some people also experience a “burning” sensation, as well — hence the term “heartburn.”
ACID reflux tends to cause sharp, burning, intense pain in the center of your chest — right where your stomach and lower esophagus are located. Pain can also sometimes occur in your neck or jaw area. Unfortunately, these are the same symptoms associated with heart attacks, which is why it’s not always easy to tell the difference between GERD pain and heart-related pain.
Many people think that if their pain happens after a large meal or if they have nausea or excessive burping, heartburn is the cause. Again, though, there’s a problem, because heart attacks can involve all of those symptoms, too.
Bottom line: if you have chest pain and you’re not sure of its cause, you need to have it medically evaluated. That’s true if you have a single experience of sharp chest pain or if you have milder bouts of recurrent pain.
Acid reflux may not be associated with the same complications as heart disease and other heart-related problems, but that doesn't mean it’s OK to ignore it. In fact, without proper treatment, acid reflux can cause some serious complications of its own.
Repeated “backflow” of stomach acid eventually causes changes in the tissue of the esophagus. Scar tissue formation can result in what’s called a stricture, a narrowing of the esophagus that can interfere with swallowing and cause other problems.
As esophageal damage continues, you can develop Barrett’s esophagus, a serious complication that causes the tissue of the esophagus to change into a different type of tissue that’s more like the lining of your intestine. Barrett’s esophagus often leads to the third serious complication: esophageal cancer. In fact, Barrett’s esophagus is a major risk factor for adenocarcinoma, the most common type of esophageal cancer.
No matter what causes it, chest pain is a sign that something’s not right. While some symptoms might be transient and harmless, other symptoms can be a sign of a serious health problem, including a heart attack or heart disease.
If you have chest pain, don’t ignore it. for serious symptoms, call 9-1-1, and to learn what’s causing your symptoms, call 772-200-3829 or book an appointment online with the team at TLC Medical Group today.