It’s not uncommon to experience heartburn after a heavy meal or a spicy dish but, for some people, heartburn and acid reflux occur more regularly, often multiple times per week. This recurrence of reflux can lead to a serious condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease, more commonly referred to as GERD.
GERD is a digestive disorder that occurs when acid produced in the stomach flows back up into the esophagus. Typically, this flow is controlled by the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a muscle between the esophagus and the stomach that relaxes to allow food and liquid to pass through to the stomach, and closes once it has passed. However, when the LES is weakened or relaxes, it’s easy for acid, and sometimes food, in the stomach to flow back up into the esophagus.
"It is normal for the LES to relax from time to time; however, excessive amounts of backflow can lead to damage of the esophagus lining," explains Patricia Wong, MD, gastroenterologist and medical director of the Women’s Digestive Health Center at Lankenau Medical Center. "If you are experiencing frequent heartburn symptoms, it's important to have your symptoms evaluated, as you may need medication to control the acid reflux or an upper endoscopy to evaluate for chronic injury."
The symptoms of GERD can vary from person to person. Classic symptoms include a burning sensation in the chest and the feeling of regurgitated food or a sour taste in the mouth, particularly while reclining. However, some people feel no symptoms at all, or 'silent reflux' while others feel extreme chest pain. If you have complications from chronic acid exposure, you may also experience difficulty swallowing, a sore throat, a dry cough, or the feeling of a lump in your throat.
Fortunately, GERD is easily treated. Although treatment will vary based on your health history and the severity of your symptoms, many patients can begin with over-the-counter or prescription medications combined with lifestyle changes.
"Treatment of GERD requires avoiding triggers that cause your stomach to produce acid, such as caffeine and alcohol. Often, patients also require medications that suppress acid production, which will also allow any damage to the esophagus to heal as well," says Dr. Wong.
Although most cases of GERD can be controlled through lifestyle changes and medication, there are other options available for more serious cases. To avoid long-term medication use, some patients may be eligible for surgery to strengthen the LES. Your physician can help you determine which treatment method is right for you.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of GERD, it’s important to make an appointment with your physician. Left untreated, GERD can cause inflammation of the esophagus and complications like esophageal ulcers, scar tissue, and an increased risk of esophageal cancer.
Main Line Health offers complete diagnostic and therapeutic services for patients with disorders of the digestive tract, which includes the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, colon, rectum, gall bladder, liver and pancreas. Visit our website to learn more about Main Line Health's gastroenterology services.