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Expert Q&A

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Can a hiatal hernia mimic other, more serious conditions?

Asked by Tripp Jones, Coral Gables, Florida

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I have heard that a hiatal hernia can mimic more serious medical conditions, such as a heart attack or make it difficult to breathe. What symptoms could a hiatal hernia produce that would seem to come from more serious other medical conditions?

Expert Bio Picture

Conditions Expert Dr. Otis Brawley Chief Medical Officer,
American Cancer Society

Expert Answer:


I would separate a hiatal hernia from the condition called reflux or gastric reflux disease or GERD. Some people have bad reflux without a hiatal hernia. Some have a hiatal hernia with no symptoms and some have hiatal hernia with reflux symptoms. Reflux is when the acidic fluid of the stomach is pushed up the esophagus. It can go up as far as into the mouth causing bad taste and burning. It can also be aspirated or accidentally inhaled into the lungs leading to burning and shortness of breath. More commonly symptoms include burning and pain in the esophagus, throat and mouth. The chest pain can be mistaken for a heart attack or esophagus rupture.

Mild GERD is treated by eating well before bedtime and by avoiding certain foods that increase risk of GERD such as spicy food and coffee. More severe GERD is treated with antacids or drugs to neutralize stomach acid and still more severe with medications designed to decrease acid production. In extreme cases surgery can be done to decrease GERD.

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