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Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) FAQs (cont.)

Does GERD affect my heart?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease and heartburn have nothing to do with the heart, even though it seems like a burning sensation in the chest. The esophagus lies just behind the heart, so heartburn can be confused with a heart problem. One important difference is that heartburn usually does not start or worsens with physical activity, while pain related to the heart often comes on with exertion (angina).

The chest pain of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can be confused with pain from a heart problem. If you have any of the following, call your doctor and/or go immediately to the closest hospital emergency department:

  • Severe chest pain or pressure, especially if it radiates to the arm, neck, or back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Severe sweating
  • Vomiting followed by severe chest pain
  • Vomiting blood
  • Dark, tarry stools
  • Difficulty swallowing solids or liquids

What is the esophagus?

The esophagus is a muscular tube stretching from the throat to the stomach. All the foods and liquids that are swallowed travel through the esophagus.

What is stomach acid?

Stomach acid is a strong acid produced by the stomach to help digest food.

Why doesn't the acid irritate the stomach?

The stomach has a protective lining that resists damage by the acid. The thick cells that line the stomach secrete large amounts of protective mucus so the acid produced does not irritate the stomach. The esophagus does not have this protection.

Why does the acid back up into the esophagus?

Normally, a ring of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus, called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), prevents acid reflux. This muscle acts like a drawstring that opens or closes off the opening between the esophagus and stomach. It is supposed to close tightly between bites and when you are not eating.

With gastroesophageal reflux disease, the lower esophageal sphincter relaxes between swallows and after eating, allowing stomach contents and corrosive acid to back up and burn or irritate the lining of the esophagus.

How does GERD differ from heartburn?

The problem of gastric reflux is the same in heartburn and GERD. The condition is called GERD when it becomes a frequent, persistent (chronic) problem.

How common is GERD?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease affects 20% of Americans to some degree at least once a month. Some adults experience GERD weekly or daily. Not just adults are affected: even infants and children can have GERD.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/19/2015

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Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease »

Gastroesophageal reflux is a normal physiological phenomenon experienced intermittently by most people, particularly after a meal.

Read More on Medscape Reference »

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