Is Acid Reflux Just Indigestion?

Is acid reflux just indigestion? Although they often occur together, the two maladies are different. Let’s agree on some definitions.

Acid Reflux and Indigestion

Acid reflux is an acidic liquid regurgitating from the stomach into the esophagus. Much of this liquid is acid produced in the stomach to digest the food you eat. The acid is harmful to the walls of the esophagus.

Indigestion is most commonly defined by an upset stomach accompanied by feelings of bloating, a growling stomach, gas, and stomach pain. Acid reflux is the empting of stomach acids into the esophagus causing a burning sensation and a taste of bile.

Acid reflux and indigestion is very common. But because we spend much of our time standing or upright, gravity keeps that acid within the stomach walls and it goes unnoticed except for the occasional burp. We also swallow frequently which returns regurgitated liquid to the stomach. Saliva contains bicarbonate which helps to neutralize the acid in the stomach.

If you suffer from repeated instances of painful acid reflux and indigestion, you should not ignore the symptoms. Experiencing chronic indigestion could be symptomatic of something much more serious, because refluxing acid can cause permanent damage to the lining of your esophagus. If it’s left untreated, it can lead to much more serious conditions like GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) or a hiatal hernia.

Chronic Acid Reflux Indigestion Consequences

A childhood friend of mine tells the story about her father always chewing on Rolaids or Tums, two popular antacid tablets. He would say that a good belch would cure the acid reflux indigestion. Eventually, he was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer. When my friend began suffering from frequent indigestion, she too began the ritual of chewing on the Rolaids and ignored the frequent bouts of acid reflux indigestion.

She finally decided that the frequent indigestion wasn’t normal. She consulted her doctor. He referred her to a specialist for an endoscopy. Endoscopy is a procedure where a thin, lighted tube (an endoscope) is inserted down the throat.

The endoscope sends images of the esophagus, stomach, and the duodenum, a twelve inch long tube that connects the stomach to the small intestines. The doctor can then determine if there is a problem and, if necessary, obtain biopsies. Most often, the patient is under sedation during this procedure avoiding the normal gagging reflex.

My friend was diagnosed with a hiatal hernia. A hiatal hernia is a protrusion of the stomach into the esophagus. It pushes through the opening in the diaphragm where the esophagus connects with the stomach. The stomach acid then leaks into the esophagus causing acid reflux. Luckily, for her, the hiatal hernia was small and could be easily treated with the prescribed antacid medication.

Years later, my friend began to experience bouts of very severe heartburn and sickness, which she continued to treat with the usual antacid prescriptions. But, one day she woke up with a severe pain in her lower stomach which didn’t respond to the usual remedies and didn’t resemble any of the normal symptoms of acid reflux.

She returned to the doctor and he had her hospitalized for tests. That small hiatal hernia had grown larger and was bleeding. It had lead to gastritis, which is an inflammation of the stomach lining.

She had also developed duodenitis, an inflammation of the duodenum; both caused by an infection of Helicobacter pylori bacteria. Helicobacter pylori can lead to peptic ulcers and even stomach cancer. Most of the world’s population is infected with this bacterium, but generally, they are not affected by it.

Indigestion may be a normal reaction to overeating, drinking too much, or eating spicy foods. If you have chronic indigestion and acid reflux, do not ignore it. It may be a symptom of something much more serious like GERD.

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