GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease), may also be commonly referred to as acid reflux or heartburn, is caused by a weak muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter that allows acid and bile to flow back from the stomach into the esophagus (the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach). Acid reflux disease is a chronic condition that affects an estimated 65 million Americans. A weakened muscle at base of the esophagus allows the stomach’s fiery digestive juices to reflux (back up) into the esophagus instead of remaining in the stomach.
Sometimes acid reflux progresses to GERD, a more severe form of reflux. The most common symptom of GERD is frequent heartburn. Other signs and symptoms may include regurgitation of food or sour liquid, difficulty swallowing, coughing, wheezing, and chest pain – especially while lying down at night.
This constant exposure to acid is painful. And, if not effectively treated, GERD eventually can lead to serious complications, such as strictures or ulcerations.
Look for Solutions for Frequent Heartburn
Dan Ringold, MD urges anyone who has been experiencing frequent episodes of heartburn, or symptoms such as trouble swallowing or painful swallowing, to seek help. “Medications called proton pump inhibitors (including Prilosec®, Prevacid®, and Nexium®) can be used to treat GERD, but nobody should be on these medications indefinitely without a physician’s supervision,” he says. He adds that patients with Barrett’s esophagus may not have any additional symptoms other than heartburn. “This makes it particularly important to get checked out. As with all types of cancers and pre-cancerous conditions, early detection and treatment are key.”
People with GERD may develop a pre-cancerous condition called Barrett’s esophagus. In Barrett’s esophagus, the tissue that lines the esophagus changes in an attempt to protect itself from chronic damage from acid or bile. Traditionally, treatments to permanently eliminate Barrett’s esophagus were invasive surgical procedures or endoscopic procedures with a high rate of side effects.
Lifestyle changes can help if experiencing occasional reflux:
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Eat smaller meals a few times a day, rather than one large meal.
- Avoiding fried, spicy and acidic foods, chocolate, coffee and peppermint may help.
- Alcohol and nicotine may also cause heartburn or reflux.
If necessary, occasional acid reflux can be treated with over-the-counter medications, including:
- H-2-receptor blockers, such as cimetidine or famotidine
- Proton pump inhibitors, such as omeprazole
If you suspect that you have GERD, your signs and symptoms worsen, or you experience nausea, vomiting or difficulty swallowing, talk to your doctor. Prescription medications may help. A gastroenterologist can also provide information about other solutions for treating GERD.