Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), acid reflux, or heartburn is a common condition you will probably experience at some point in your life. Spicy food may give you a burning feeling in your upper chest. Or, you could experience burping up acidic liquid that burns the throat. You may notice it most when you are standing up. But often with acid reflux it occurs when you are lying down. No matter what may trigger your GERD or heartburn, you know it is uncomfortable. You may take antacids or other form of over-the-counter medication for relief, but it keeps coming back. You might be asking yourself is my GERD just a harmless nuisance, or is it a condition far more serious than simple heartburn?
What is GERD?
At the top of your stomach is a valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). When you swallow food, this valve opens to admit food into your stomach. Normally, the LES closes as soon as the food passes through. If this valve doesn’t close completely, or it opens too often, the acid produced in your stomach can travel up into your esophagus. This is painful because the esophagus is lined with soft tissue that can be damaged by exposure to harsh stomach acid. You can actually feel the stomach acid that is burning your esophagus. The burning sensation in your chest is called heartburn, or acid reflux. If you are experiencing symptoms more than twice a week, then you have acid reflux disease, or GERD.
What causes GERD?
A common cause of acid reflux is a stomach abnormality called a hiatal hernia. Normally, your diaphragm, a muscle that separates your stomach from your chest, helps keep acid in your stomach. But, when you have a hiatal hernia, the upper part of the stomach and the LES move above the diaphragm. When this happens, acid can move up into your esophagus and cause symptoms of acid reflux disease.
Other causes of acid reflux include:
- Lying down right after eating large meals
- Being overweight or obese
- Lying on your back or bending over after eating
- Eating certain foods such as citrus, chocolate, mint, tomato, garlic, onions, spicy or fatty foods
- Snacking / eating close to bedtime
- Drinking alcohol, coffee, tea or carbonated beverages
- Taking aspirin, ibuprofen, certain muscle relaxers, or blood pressure medications
When Should I See My Doctor for GERD?
If you are experiencing occasional symptoms and they respond easily to over the counter acid reducers, you are probably not suffering from a serious condition.
GERD symptoms that suggest a more serious problem and warrant a visit to your physician include:
- Difficulty or pain swallowing
- Chest pain
- Symptoms consistently wake you up at night
- Your symptoms persist for months to years
- Nausea or vomiting
- Drastic weight loss
- You have black or bloody bowel movements
Constant or ongoing GERD over a period of years can put you at risk for esophageal bleeding and cancer. Serious GERD symptoms could represent complications such as Barrett’s esophagus or a narrowing in the esophagus. Barrett’s esophagus can also increase the risk of esophageal cancer.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should schedule a consultation with a doctor as soon as possible. If your GERD symptoms are not easily resolved after taking over-the-counter medication for two weeks, or if symptoms are not controlled with lifestyle modifications, you should see your doctor.
Concerned about GERD or other digestive issues? The digestive health professionals at Ocean Family Gastroenterology will provide you with caring and comprehensive digestive health screening and treatment. For a consultation contact us at (732) 281-1590 or online HERE