Dealing with occasional acid reflux symptoms is certainly annoying (especially if they hit right after a nice meal out when you’re trying to sleep), but in some rare instances, heartburn (the leading symptom of acid reflux) can be a warning sign of another condition called achalasia.
While less common than acid reflux (it only occurs in one out of 100,000 Americans per year, typically between the ages of 25 and 60 years old), the treatment plan for achalasia is much different than for occasional acid reflux. If left untreated, achalasia can cause health issues for your esophagus on top of painful symptoms.
The Differences Between Achalasia and Acid Reflux
The major difference between acid reflux and achalasia is that acid reflux occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter relaxes and weakens when it shouldn’t, and this causes whatever is in the stomach to rise up into the esophagus. This acid regurgitation is what causes the sour taste of acid in the back of your throat, as well as heartburn. For many, a product like TUMS Chewy Bites can provide fast relief for heartburn, making the symptoms of occasional acid reflux short-lived.
But for someone with achalasia, the esophagus isn’t able to push food down to the stomach due to nerve damage within the esophagus itself. This causes that lower esophageal sphincter muscle to not relax, so food can’t be fully transported down. Two big symptoms of achalasia are difficulty swallowing, and food regurgitation.
There may be some mild chest pain that gradually worsens for someone who has achalasia, and this may sometimes be mistaken for heartburn caused by acid reflux. And while acid reflux can be caused by a number of factors, from prescriptions you’re taking to health factors like your weight, researchers still aren’t clear what causes achalasia. It could be caused by a degeneration of a group of nerves in the chest, or it could be genetically inherited.
What to Do If You Have Achalasia or Acid Reflux
If you think you may have achalasia instead of acid reflux, it’s important to talk to your doctor so that you can get tested for the disease. Testing for achalasia includes X-ray or endoscopy (during which a physician uses a flexible light and camera to examine the inside of your esophagus and stomach). If you are diagnosed with achalasia, your doctor will decide the best course of treatment for you. This may involve surgery, medication, or a combination or both to help the lower esophageal sphincter relax in order to get food pushed down into the stomach.