Indigestion vs. a Hernia: How to Tell the Difference

Indigestion vs. a Hernia: How to Tell the Difference

You can experience a hernia in numerous parts of your body. They occur when internal organs bulge through a weak area of tissue meant to hold it in place. For example, when a small amount of your stomach pushes through a hole into your diaphragm, you have a hiatal hernia.

Hernias don’t always cause symptoms or require medical attention. However, depending on their location and severity, they can trigger a variety of problems, including chronic indigestion, also called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Similarly, you can also develop a hiatal hernia from GERD. Despite the link between these conditions, having frequent indigestion doesn’t guarantee you have a hernia.

At Surgical Associates of North Texas in McKinney, Texas, Scott A. deVilleneuve, MD, uses minimally invasive approaches when treating most hernias. If you have frequent problems with indigestion, here’s what you need to know about hiatal hernias and how to spot the signs of a problem.

Indigestion and hiatal hernias

It can be easy to miss the signs of a hiatal hernia, because they often overlap with indigestion. For example, they can both cause:

The similarities between these symptoms have to do with the parts of your digestive tract involved. 

The anatomy of a problem

You have two specific muscles that help keep your stomach contents in place: the diaphragm and the lower esophageal sphincter.

The diaphragm

When you eat something, the food passes through a small opening in a thin sheet of tissue at the base of your chest. This muscle, called the diaphragm, pulls air in and out of your lungs. It also squeezes around your esophagus, keeping the entrance of your stomach closed.

The lower esophageal sphincter

After food passes through your diaphragm, it reaches the bottom of your esophagus and the lower esophageal sphincter. This muscle relaxes to let food pass through and then closes immediately. This muscle function keeps stomach acid and other contents out of the esophagus.

While your stomach can handle the highly acidic fluid, the delicate tissue in your esophagus can’t. Instead, if stomach acid comes in contact with your esophagus regularly, it can trigger irritation and inflammation, weakening or damaging the tissue. Over time, this weakened area can develop a hole, allowing stomach tissue to bulge through into your esophagus.

Understanding chronic indigestion

GERD symptoms arise when your esophageal sphincter doesn’t function properly, allowing stomach acid to back up into the esophagus. Unlike having indigestion now and then, GERD describes experiencing mild problems at least twice a week or severe symptoms at least once a week.

Additional symptoms of GERD can include:

Unfortunately, living with chronic GERD can impact your sphincter function, putting you at risk of developing a hiatal hernia. And having a hiatal hernia can worsen GERD symptoms.

Understanding hiatal hernias

Unlike GERD, a hiatal hernia occurs because you have a hole in your diaphragm. When this happens, your stomach tissue can bulge through your diaphragm. 

Small hiatal hernias typically cause few — if any — problems. However, large hiatal hernias can lead to stomach acid and food backing up into your esophagus. The result? Heartburn and indigestion.

Additional signs of hiatal hernias can include: 

Sometimes, you can treat both GERD and hiatal hernia symptoms with lifestyle changes and medication. However, depending on the severity of your symptoms, Dr. deVilleneuve could recommend surgical treatment to repair your hernia and reduce your risk for additional complications.

To learn more about hiatal hernias or GERD or to get treatment, book an appointment online or over the phone with Surgical Associates of North Texas today.

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