Acid reflux is such a common problem you’d think it would be simple to spot and treat.
But sometimes acid reflux symptoms are less than obvious or easy to mistake for something else.
If left untreated, heartburn can lead to Barrett’s esophagus, which is a precursor to cancer, says Timothy Pfanner, MD, assistant professor of internal medicine at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, in College Station.
Here are some symptoms—both common and unusual—that could mean you have acid reflux.
Chest pain, which occurs because stomach acid is splashing into the esophagus, is a classic acid reflux symptom. But the pain can last longer and be more intense than expected. Many people mistake heartburn for a heart attack. You can never ignore chest pain, especially if it gets worse when you exercise or exert yourself. (Check out Heartburn or Heart Attack? How to Tell the Difference.)
If you’re having chest pain, check with your doctor to make sure you’re not having a heart attack, says Walter J. Coyle, MD, gastroenterologist with Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif.
Pain worsens at rest
The acid that is supposed to stay in your stomach is more likely to escape into your esophagus when you lie down or bend over, causing heartburn.
“If you’re sitting up straight, gravity helps keep food in the stomach,” says Dr. Coyle. “If you lose the gravity, you’re more prone to reflux.”
That’s why people with chronic heartburn raise the head of their bed, and why they shouldn’t eat big meals right before bedtime.
Post-meal painPain that sets in right after a meal—especially a big meal—often means the stomach is overloaded and its contents have nowhere to go but up. But you may be able to prevent this without taking medication.
“I would stress not eating big, fatty meals and watching [your intake of alcohol and tobacco],” says Dr. Coyle, who is a spokesman for the American College of Gastroenterology.
And it’s another reason not to recline after dining.