Is GERD the same thing as heartburn?

Dr. William B. Salt, MD

Heartburn is defined as an episodic burning sensation behind the breastbone related to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD affects 20 to 30 percent of people in the United States and is related to the reflux or return of stomach acid into the esophagus. Yet, gastroenterologists commonly see patients describe heartburn that either fails to respond or responds incompletely to strong antisecretory drugs called proton pump inhibitors (such as Prilosec, Prevacid, Aciphex, Protonix and Nexium). This is functional heartburn. It is important to recognize functional heartburn to avoid unnecessary surgery from a misdiagnosis of GERD.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Both GERD and heartburn refer to the back-up of stomach acid into the esophagus, and pain and burning when the acid comes in contact with the esophagus. When heartburn is ongoing and occurs twice a week or more, it is labeled GERD. Watch the animation to learn more about GERD.


Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is an often chronic malfunction of the muscle between your esophagus and your stomach. This circular muscle, called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), acts like a valve and sometimes opens when it should not or fails to close when it should, allowing stomach acid and other stomach contents to leak back into the esophagus. The esophagus is the tube that carries food to your stomach. Heartburn, also known as acid indigestion, is a painful, burning sensation in your chest behind your breastbone that occurs when stomach acid or other stomach contents leak back into the esophagus. Despite its name, heartburn actually has nothing to do with the heart. Frequent heartburn is a common symptom of GERD, but you can have occasional heartburn without having GERD.

Dr. Lisa Ganjhu, DO

The flaming pain of heartburn is often part of GERD, but the two problems aren’t one in the same. Check out this video with Dr. Lisa Ganjhu, a gastroenterologist, to see where the conditions converge—and why they often diverge.

Having heartburn that causes pain and discomfort daily is not normal; frequent heartburn could be GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). Watch surgery specialist James "Butch" Rosser Jr., MD, explain the difference between typical heartburn and GERD.

Simple heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) share the same symptoms. This is why it can be difficult to understand the separation between the two. To avoid confusion, I feel you must think of two things, severity and frequency. You must determine if the symptoms are mild and only an occasional annoyance, or are they an aggressive nemesis that disrupts your quality of life. Also, how often do you have these symptoms? Everyone on occasion has a bout of heartburn. But if this is happening two to three times every week, you may have a more serious problem. In summary, if you have severe symptoms that occur two to three times a week you may not be suffering from simple heartburn. Rather you have a very high chance of having GERD.

Being a scientist as well as a physician, I do not like guessing about what is a possibility and what is fact. Therefore, all of my patients take a validated questionnaire that evaluates typical symptoms, atypical symptoms, quality of life and your level of satisfaction with you current condition. Depending on how you score will determine the likelihood of your having GERD. This assessment provides me with your heartburn number (HBN) and I then have objective evidence as to your diagnosis. I will then tailor my evaluation plan to your objective metrics. This greatly adds to the level of preciseness of your treatment plan.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.