In the United States, about 25 million adults suffer from heartburn daily according to Health.com. Heartburn is a burning sensation felt behind the breast bone that occurs when stomach contents irritate the normal lining of the esophagus. This symptom is caused by acid reflux. Reflux of acid occurs when stomach acid refluxes (splashes) up into the esophagus, which is the tube that connects the throat to the stomach. Occasional heartburn is nothing to be concerned about; however, if heartburn continues on a regular basis, a Gastroenterologist should be consulted. Constant exposure to stomach acid can irritate and damage the lining of the esophagus and cause other medical problems. This frequent and severe heartburn is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD.
How Does Acid Reflux Occur?
The esophagus is the tubular structure which carries food and liquid into the stomach. At the bottom of the esophagus, there is a strong muscular ring called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) which connects to the stomach. Normally, the LES should remain tightly closed, except when allowing food and liquid to pass into the stomach. Reflux occurs when the LES is not functioning properly. The LES may relax for periods of time throughout the day and night, or it may be too weak to function effectively. This relaxation allows the stomach’s acids to flow up into the esophagus. How weak the LES is, and the amount and duration of acid refluxed into the esophagus determines how severe the disease may become, if left untreated.
What Triggers Acid Reflux?
Common triggers for acid reflux are:
- Eating a heavy meal and bending over or lying down
- Being overweight or obese
- Eating certain foods (citrus, onions, chocolate, garlic, tomato, or spicy and fatty foods
- Drinking certain beverages (alcohol, sodas, coffee, or tea)
- Snacking before bedtime
- Certain medications (aspirin,ibuprofen, some muscle relaxers, and blood pressure medications)
- Certain exercises
What are the Symptoms of Acid Reflux?
Besides heartburn, other symptoms of reflux acid disease (GERD) are:
- Sour or bitter taste
- Hoarseness or chronic sore throat
- Dysphagia (a narrowing of your esophagus, which creates the sensation of food being stuck in your throat)
- Constant hiccups
- Weight loss for no known reason
- Wheezing or dry cough
How Is Acid Reflux Diagnosed?
If you have acid reflux symptoms two or more times a week, if medications don’t bring relief, or if the symptoms are interfering with your life, it is time to see a gastroenterologist. Also, if you have trouble swallowing, this is one of the major symptoms which need immediate attention by Dr. Kenneth Brown or another Gastroenterologist. However, symptoms such as heartburn are the key to the diagnosis of acid reflux disease. If over the counter medications (such as antacids and acid-blocking medications) and life style changes do not help reduce these symptoms or if you have frequent or severe symptoms, Dr. Brown may prescribe medication or order tests to confirm a diagnosis and check for other problems.
You may need to have an endoscopy. An endoscopy allows the Gastroenterologist to check for problems in your esophagus or stomach. For this procedure, Dr. Brown will give you a sedative to make you are more comfortable. Then Dr. Kenneth Brown will insert a long, flexible, lighted tube, called an endoscope, down your throat. With the endoscope, he can determine if there is any tissue damage, how severe the disease is, and if there are any complications. During this procedure, a biopsy may be taken in order to check samples of tissue for infection or abnormalities.
What if GERD is Not Diagnosed?
When GERD is severe or left untreated, complications can occur. Continuous irritation of the esophagus by stomach acid can cause inflammation, ulcers, bleeding, anemia or low blood count. Over time, scarring and narrowing of the esophagus can also develop. This narrowing is called a stricture, which causes difficulty when swallowing foods or liquids. On rare occasion, patients may develop a condition called Barrett’s esophagus. Barrett’s esophagus is a change in the cells lining the esophagus and can be a forerunner of esophageal cancer.
GERD is a very common medical condition. It requires medical attention when symptoms and tissue damage become frequent or severe. Fortunately, there are new strategies and medications being developed all the time to combat GERD. Lifestyle changes can help, and many medications, even surgery can be used to treat and correct GERD. Working with your Plano, TX Gastroenterologist, a good medical regimen can almost always be developed to successfully treat those who suffer from GERD.