Is It “Just” Heartburn or Something More Serious?


By John Dowd, DO, Concord Gastroenterology Associates
10/28/2021

When is the occasional bout of heartburn not “just heartburn”? If you are experiencing heartburn on a daily basis, it is likely time to be evaluated for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Persistent, untreated GERD may lead to more serious conditions. Sometimes, it can be a precursor to other diseases, including cancer.

John Dowd, DO, a gastroenterologist with Concord Gastroenterology Associates, provides insight into what GERD is, what it is not, and how you can address symptoms in a safe, healthy way.

Reflux Signs & Symptoms

The stomach makes a very powerful acid. This acid works to sterilize the food you eat. When acid enters the esophagus, the defense mechanisms other parts of the digestive tract possess are lacking — which causes a burning sensation.

Beyond burning, reflux can cause damage to the esophagus in the form of ulcerations or erosions, especially if it occurs on a chronic basis. “Heartburn is really a symptom of acid reflux,” states Dr. Dowd. Other symptoms that can occur as a result of reflux include cough, hoarseness, throat pain, throat clearing, chest pain, nausea, and even vomiting.

And it can be very painful — even mistaken for a heart attack. It is not infrequent that Dr. Dowd’s colleagues in the emergency department see patients for GERD-related heart attack symptoms. The first step in these cases is to assess the patient for a cardiac issue and then treat them accordingly.

In some cases, the opposite occurs. Dr. Dowd recounts situations where patients came to him for a GERD evaluation and he ultimately sent them to a cardiologist. “One patient said, ‘Every time I am going up this hill, walking my dog, I get this bad pain in my chest. And my doctor sent me here for an evaluation of reflux.’ I picked up the phone and got him an appointment with a cardiologist.”

Mild, Moderate, or Severe?

Per Dr. Dowd, “Everybody has reflux. What defines whether it is a disease or not is how long the acid is in contact with the esophagus. We do specialized testing to evaluate reflux. When we see very high quantities, for very long periods of time, that's pathologic. That designates a disease state. When it is minimal and is cleared rapidly, people usually do not have a problem.”

Reflux is considered mild if it occurs no more than twice a week.

When Is Reflux Severe?

When individuals report suffering with symptoms more than twice a week, or if any of the below symptoms are associated with reflux, the condition requires further evaluation by a gastroenterologist.

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Painful swallowing
  • Evidence of gastrointestinal bleeding
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Coughing at night

Typically, patients will undergo an endoscopy to determine if there is damage to the esophagus — and to what extent. According to Dr. Dowd, only about a third of patients who experience reflux have evidence of damage.

“When we identify patients who have more severe symptoms or longstanding duration of symptoms, that rate of damage goes up significantly. The rate of abnormalities seen in endoscopy is much higher. So, those patients are the ones who really need a gastroenterologist.”

Take this GERD risk quiz to learn more about your GERD symptoms and risks.

Treatment Options

Patients with mild GERD symptoms are often advised to try over-the-counter antacids called H-2 blockers (e.g. Tagamet, Axid). Patients who require the next level up in therapy are given a class of drug called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). However, these medications should not be used for long periods of time.

Ultimately, Dr. Dowd urges individuals who are suffering with symptoms to get checked out — especially those with significant indications. “Anyone who has difficulty swallowing, painful swallowing, weight loss, loss of appetite, or signs or symptoms of gastrointestinal bleeding should be evaluated by a gastroenterologist.”

Listen to the Podcast

Dr. John Dowd discusses heartburn and when you should seek help from a doctor.

Visit our podcast page to find the latest episode or subscribe to the Health Works Here Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and wherever podcasts can be heard.

Request an Appointment

Dr. John Dowd is a board-certified gastroenterologist. For more information, or to make an appointment, fill out the form on this page or call (978) 287-3835.

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