Many people use the terms acid reflux and indigestion interchangeably. As these two health issues often occur simultaneously, it is easy to understand how they may be mistakenly regarded as a single phenomenon. In truth, however, acid reflux and indigestion are two separate conditions that may occur together or separately. Acid reflux refers specifically to the spread of stomach acid to the esophagus. Conversely, indigestion is a collective term for a whole range of uncomfortable symptoms which can occur after eating.
Acid reflux is the movement of stomach acid into the esophagus, usually resulting in a highly unpleasant or even painful burning sensation in the chest known to most people as heartburn. It may also be accompanied by symptoms like belching, hiccuping, bloating, nausea, and sore throat. This phenomenon occurs when a muscular valve at the base of the esophagus which normally opens only to allow food into the stomach fails to function properly, allowing digestive acids to seep into the throat. Those who experience heartburn three times a week or more may suffer from acid reflux disease, known alternatively as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
One of the reasons that acid reflux and indigestion are often confused is that acid reflux is often triggered by eating, just as indigestion is. But acid reflux has many other possible causes, including smoking, taking certain medications, obesity, and pregnancy. Many people can successfully manage acid reflux symptoms with an over-the-counter medication. Those with GERD may find it necessary to obtain a prescription medication for relief.
Indigestion is a collective label for a range of uncomfortable symptoms which can occur after meals. Acid reflux and indigestion are frequently mixed up due largely to the fact that when acid reflux occurs after a meal, it is usually considered a symptom of indigestion. Many other symptoms fall under the indigestion label, however. These can include a feeling of fullness, nausea, stomach pain or burning, belching, gas, and vomiting.
There are many possible causes of indigestion. In some cases the condition is caused directly by eating, especially by overindulgence or the consumption of foods that are spicy or high in fat. At other times, indigestion arises as a symptom of an underlying condition such as ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), pancreatitis, thyroid disease, or stomach cancer. Those who experience chronic indigestion may wish to consult a physician to rule out the presence of a serious underlying condition.