Medically reviewed on December 10, 2023 by Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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After eating a meal, some people can experience discomfort in the form of indigestion or heartburn. While the terms are often used interchangeably, they refer to two separate conditions.
So, what’s the difference between indigestion vs. heartburn?
Heartburn is a type of indigestion that causes a burning sensation in the chest. Indigestion, on the other hand, is a general term that refers to a variety of gastrointestinal issues. But, let’s dig a bit deeper.
After eating, the food moves into the stomach for digestion. During this time, people with indigestion can feel pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen, where the stomach sits. This is often referred to as epigastric pain. This can cause an upset stomach after eating, or it may manifest as several other reflux symptoms, including :
People with indigestion can also experience [1,2]:
How long does indigestion last? The duration in which ingestion lasts will vary from person to person. Some people may only experience symptoms for a few minutes, while others may experience indigestion for several hours as the food moves through the digestive system.
So, why exactly does the pain arise in the abdomen?
It’s where your stomach is located, but it’s also the home of two other organs that are essential to digestion :
While pancreas and gallbladder issues can cause indigestion, more common causes of indigestion aren’t as severe. For instance, it’s very common to experience indigestion after eating a large meal made of rich ingredients.
As the food passes through your digestive system, it has to work overtime to break down the food and move it through the gastrointestinal tract. Accordingly, your gallbladder and pancreas will contract, your stomach will stretch, and digestive juices may irritate some tissues. Other potential causes include [1,2]:
In addition to pancreas and gallbladder issues, medical causes of indigestion can also include :
Stomach acid can play a key role in indigestion symptoms. Over time, the lining in your stomach can begin to disappear, which makes the tissue more susceptible to irritation and inflammation. These acids can escape to the small intestine and esophagus, which can lead to acid reflux, a condition that causes burping, regurgitation, and heartburn.
Note: A heart attack has many of the same symptoms as indigestion, such as abdomen and chest pain, nausea, fatigue, and dizziness, among others. Ingestion, itself, can be a symptom of a heart attack on its own. If sweating, shortness of breath, or abdominal tightness accompany your indigestion, it’s critical to seek the help of a healthcare professional immediately since you may be experiencing cardiovascular blockages.
Acute indigestion is treatable at home. People often turn to over-the-counter antacid medications that neutralize stomach acid to prevent irritation or inflammation of the digestive tissues. These medications include :
Drinking water may also help to ease some of the symptoms of indigestion, particularly if you’re experiencing acid reflux. The water can wash the acid from your throat and return it to your stomach. Water may also support digestion.
For those who experience long-lasting or chronic indigestion, it’s advised to seek medical treatment. After assessing your condition, your healthcare provider may prescribe acid blockers, such as histamine receptor antagonists (H2 blockers) and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), as well as prokinetic agents to speed digestion and antibiotics to reduce bacterial overgrowth in the stomach or small intestine.
To prevent indigestion altogether, avoid large meals and certain foods that may trigger indigestion symptoms. Getting enough sleep and exercise, managing your stress levels, and maintaining a healthy weight may also help reduce indigestion episodes.
Heartburn is a type of indigestion that causes a burning sensation in the chest. Its primary cause? Acid reflux.
There are two types of acid reflux that adults can experience. These include :
As explored, digestive acid can escape the confines of the stomach and travel to either the small intestine or the esophagus. The latter occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter—the junction between the stomach and the esophagus—fails to tighten, allowing stomach acid to flow back into the esophagus. When working normally, the esophageal sphincter will temporarily relax to allow food to travel into the stomach, then tighten again.
Unlike the stomach, the esophagus does not have lining to protect itself from digestive acids. So, when the stomach contents do return to the esophagus, it can irritate the tissues within the esophagus, causing pain and burning.
In addition to heartburn, symptoms of acid reflux can include hiccups, cough, hoarse voice, bad breath, bloating, and a sour taste in your mouth. You may also experience more heartburn when sitting, lying down, or bending over.
Several types of food can trigger heartburn, such as :
There may be some medical causes, too. For example, people who are pregnant or people taking anti-inflammatory painkillers, birth control, and/or blood pressure medications can experience lower esophageal sphincter issues, as well as people who experience [7,8]:
Like generalized indigestion, heartburn can last several minutes up to several hours. It will pass once the stomach is fully emptied, meaning there are no more contents to come back up to your esophagus.
If you’re just beginning to experience heartburn, two factors may play a role in its sudden occurrence, such as :
While acid reflux is the most common cause of heartburn, it’s not the only one. A few medical conditions can also trigger heartburn, including :
To evaluate your condition, it’s best to visit your healthcare provider. They’ll assess potential esophagus damage by conducting such tests as :
If heartburn is diagnosed, your healthcare provider will likely prescribe a heartburn medication, like :
Ingestion is a generalized term that refers to a number of gastrointestinal conditions, while heartburn is one of these conditions. That said, all forms of indigestion can cause gastrointestinal discomfort, pain, and burning.
If you’re struggling with discomfort after you eat, take our at-home Food Sensitivity Test, or consult with an Everlywell healthcare provider through a telehealth visit. We’ll discuss your symptoms from the comfort of your own home and plan next steps together based on your unique needs.
Schedule a visit today to get started.
Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP is a board-certified Family Physician. Since completing her residency training in 2010, she’s been practicing full-scope family medicine in a rural setting. Dr. Foglesong Stabile’s practice includes caring for patients of all ages for preventative care as well as chronic disease management. She also provides prenatal care and delivers babies. Dr. Foglesong Stabile completed a teaching fellowship in 2020 and teaches the family medicine clerkship for one of her local medical schools. Dr. Foglesong Stabile’s favorite thing about family medicine is the variety of patients she sees in her clinical practice.