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Differences Between Heartburn and Indigestion

written by: Emjay Annavi Baclay • edited by: lrohner • updated: 9/30/2010

The difference between heartburn and indigestion is not always clear. Learn more about both conditions as well as their causes and symptoms.

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    There is often confusion in distinguishing between indigestion and heartburn. Both share certain common causes and other similarities, but the two are essentially different from each other. A key way to determine the difference between heartburn and indigestion is that indigestion is a condition with heartburn as one of its symptoms, albeit the causal link is not always present. Heartburn is more of a symptom than a condition in itself, which is commonly associated with acid reflux incidences including gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

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    Causes

    Indigestion, also referred to as dyspepsia, is directly linked to overeating at a rapid pace, resulting in the digestive system going into overdrive. Excessive production of acid occurs, although the acid stays in the stomach. There are a wide variety of other possible causes, including excessive alcohol and caffeine consumption, excessive intake of spicy and fatty foods and smoking. Psychological factors, such as emotional trauma and tension, may also cause indigestion, as well as drug-induced side effects as seen in the effects of non-steroidal drugs for inflammation, antibiotics, and aspirin. Dyspepsia may also occur from other serious complications, such as pancreatitis, peptic ulcers, gastritis, gall stones or a bacterial infection that irritates the stomach’s lining.

    Heartburn is primarily caused by acid reflux which is manifested in the rising movement of acidic contents from the stomach — a key difference between heartburn and indigestion. Acid reflux is the state wherein acid flows back or recedes from the stomach into the esophagus, causing a burning feeling. The acid reflux can result from indigestion, but other possible causes are complications such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and hiatal hernia. Other leading causes of the burning symptom include ingestion of foods and beverages that irritate the esophagus’ sphincter. Despite the name, heartburn is not due to heart ailments or complications. The probable link as to why it acquired its name is because the site of symptoms is usually felt near the heart. Heartburns is also sometimes confused with a heart attack.

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    Symptoms

    Most symptoms of heartburn occur near the breast bone, with a burning sensation felt in the chest, although the sensation is sometimes felt in the throat. Other symptoms include the regurgitation of food, an acidic taste in the mouth or having a sore throat and a hoarse voice. Symptoms are normally felt after eating, and lying down following the meal can often aggravate symptoms. Episodes can abruptly appear and and can last up to a few hours.

    Indigestion is usually linked to a bloated feeling or fullness with discomfort, after or even during meal consumption. It also involves an acute burning sensation, but the site of the major symptom is felt in the upper portion of the stomach instead of the breastbone. Abdominal pain, gas, nausea and vomiting are other symptoms associated with indigestion.