Living Well: Frequent acid reflux could point to more serious condition
From heartburn to acid regurgitation, the effects of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) are not only uncomfortable, but they could also become serious.
About one-third of the population has GERD, according to the American Gastroenterological Association. That’s not to say that everyone who has ever experienced heartburn after an indulgent meal has the condition, but those who experience symptoms more than two times per week might want to get checked out.
Other symptoms of GERD include difficulty swallowing, chest pain, water brash, chronic cough, hoarseness, wheezing, and infrequently, nausea, said Dr. Jeff Womble, general surgeon and chief of surgery at Memorial Regional Health.
Is it GERD?
Acid reflux occurs when the acid that is normally in the stomach backs up into the esophagus.
“The esophagus is the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach,” Dr. Womble said. “When acid reflux causes bothersome symptoms or damage, doctors call it ‘gastroesophageal reflux disease’ or ‘GERD.’”
GERD is a chronic disease that is “characterized by symptoms and/or tissue damage that results from repeated or prolonged exposure of the lining of the esophagus to acidic contents from the stomach, and occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter does not seal off the esophagus from the stomach,” according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders.
Complications from GERD can arise even in patients who lack typical esophageal symptoms, Dr. Womble said.
Complications can be esophageal (e.g. Barrett’s esophagus, esophageal stricture, esophageal adenocarcinoma), or extra-esophageal (e.g. chronic laryngitis, exacerbation of asthma).
Dr. Womble said you should see a doctor or nurse if:
- Your symptoms are severe or last a long time
- You cannot seem to control your symptoms
- You have had symptoms for many years
He said you should also see a doctor or nurse right away if you:
Memorial Regional Health physicians can help patients experiencing symptoms from GERD with a variety of treatment plans, including some surgical procedures. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms to see which treatment options are right for you. If you have questions about general surgery services, call MRH at 970-826-2420 to find out your best option.
Is it just heartburn or is it GERD?
Nearly everyone has heartburn now and then. But heartburn is also the most common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), so talk to your doctor if:
- Your heartburn happens two or more times a week
- Your heartburn gets worse
- Your heartburn happens at night and wakes you from sleep
- You’ve had heartburn now and then, but for several years
- You have difficulty or pain when swallowing
- Your discomfort or pain interferes with your daily activities
Heartburn is a common symptom, but other symptoms of GERD include:
- Difficulty or pain when swallowing
- Water brash (sudden excess of saliva)
- Dysphagia (the sensation of food sticking in the esophagus)
- Chronic sore throat
- Inflammation of the gums
- Erosion of the enamel of the teeth
- Chronic irritation in the throat
- Hoarseness in the morning
- A sour taste
- Bad breath
- Have trouble swallowing, or feel as though food gets “stuck” on the way down
- Lose weight when you are not trying to
- Have chest pain
- Choke when you eat
- Vomit blood or have bowel movements that are red, black or look like tar
Once a patient is diagnosed with GERD, doctors might prescribe some lifestyle changes to resolve the symptoms naturally. These might include recommending weight loss for patients with GERD who are overweight or have had recent weight gain, Dr. Womble said. Other lifestyle remedies include avoiding food and beverages of any kind two to three hours before going to bed, and avoiding caffeine, chocolate, spicy foods, high-fat foods, carbonated beverages, peppermint, tobacco and alcohol.
When these fixes don’t work, doctors might prescribe medications or recommend surgery or other interventions. One option is stretta, a minimally invasive endoscopic procedure that is directed at the root cause of GERD: a poorly functioning lower esophageal sphincter (the valve between the esophagus and stomach), Dr. Womble said. Candidates for the procedure are those who aren’t able to control GERD through lifestyle and dietary changes and medication, and those with no significant hiatal hernia.
“It’s similar to getting an upper endoscopy, a.k.a, an EGD,” he said. “The goal is to help the valve function better.”