Heartburn vs. Indigestion

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
You've likely heard about heartburn and indigestion. But do you know if they're one and the same or very different? It turns out they're sort of related but not entirely. Find out the real difference in this lesson.

Commonly Confused Terms

Capital and capitol, accept and except, aisle and isle. These are commonly confused terms. But this isn't an English lesson. It's about two commonly confused health-related terms. They are heartburn and indigestion. Let's figure out what they really are.

What Is Indigestion?

Think back to the last time you had a lot of really greasy and spicy food. Maybe you felt a little discomfort in your upper abdomen. Perhaps you felt nauseous. Some of you may have felt fuller earlier than normal and that feeling of fullness lasted an uncomfortably long time. Well, then you may have had indigestion, or something more technically called dyspepsia.

The latter term comes from dys-, which means bad or difficult and -pepsia, which implies digestion. So, the word literally means bad and/or difficult digestion. Cause of dyspepsia include overeating, spicy food, fatty food, and other causes like lots of alcohol, caffeine, and even soda. Sometimes, the cause of indigestion is medical in nature. It may be due to stomach ulcers, stomach cancer, a blockage in the intestines, and gastritis (inflammation of the stomach) among plenty other causes.

Indigestion is not a disease, however. It's a word for nonspecific symptoms related to the digestive tract. By nonspecific, I mean that these symptoms can arise due to many different problems and it's hard to pinpoint a cause on their basis alone. Luckily, most of the time, indigestion requires no treatment because it's a minor problem. Yes, you might feel gassy, bloated, nauseous, and really full but all of this commonly goes away on its own. In other cases, lifestyle changes, such as the avoidance of alcohol, will be advised by doctors. In more serious cases, the underlying medical problem will need to be treated with medication.

What Is Heartburn?

One of the other possible symptoms of indigestion is heartburn. This is a burning sensation that occur right behind your breastbone, the hard and relatively flat bone in the middle of your chest. Although it commonly occurs here, the burning sensation in heartburn may extend to the neck and throat.

Heartburn has nothing to do with the heart, however. It's caused by the irritation of the esophagus, the food tube. This is the muscular tube that carries food from your mouth and into the stomach. If the stomach refluxes stomach acid into the esophagus, which shouldn't normally happen, then the stomach acid will chemically burn the esophagus, leading to heartburn.

Like I said before, normally this shouldn't happen because there is a band of muscles right where the esophagus joins the stomach. This band of muscles acts like a fist and clenches shut when there's no food passing between the two structures. However, if this fist-like band of muscle weakens or relaxes when it's not supposed to, acid backs up into the esophagus to cause heartburn.

Heartburn can be treated with various medications, such as antacids and proton pump inhibitors, which either neutralize stomach acid so it doesn't burn the esophagus or prevents the stomach from making too much stomach acid in the first place.

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