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Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

Heartburn is very common and affects more than 60 million Americans at least once a month. It is the most common symptom of acid reflux.

Acid reflux happens when your lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is not working correctly. The LES is a ring of muscles between your stomach and esophagus. During normal digestion, it opens to let food pass into the stomach, and closes to keep stomach acid out of your esophagus. If the LES is weak or relaxes, acid can flow back into the esophagus and irritate it.

Acid reflux and the heartburn it causes are not usually a problem if they happen once in a while. However, if acid reflux becomes chronic, it can progress to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

If it goes untreated for a long time, GERD can cause:

  • Narrowing of the esophagus. The constant exposure to acid from the stomach can create scars that narrow the esophagus. This can make it difficult to swallow.
  • An ulcer in the esophagus. Acid can create an open sore in the esophagus that may bleed and also make it difficult to swallow.
  • Barrett’s esophagus. This condition affects 10 to 15 percent of GERD sufferers. It changes the cells in the lining of your esophagus and it may lead to esophageal cancer in some people. If you have this condition, your doctor will recommend regular monitoring through endoscopy exams.

Symptoms of GERD

Heartburn, also called acid indigestion, is the most common symptom of GERD. Heartburn is described as a burning chest pain that begins behind the breastbone and moves upward to the neck and throat. It can last as long as two hours and is often worse after eating. Chronic heartburn can sometimes lead to serious complications.

How to Prevent GERD

You can manage mild heartburn by eating smaller meals. You should also try to finish dinner three to four hours before bed and avoid late-night snacks. Having food in your stomach when you lie down can trigger reflux.

Eating certain foods can also contribute to your heartburn. Foods such as tomatoes, citrus fruits, garlic, onions, chocolate, coffee, alcohol, caffeinated products, and peppermint can relax the LES and trigger a backflow. In addition, foods that are high in fats and oils can also lead to heartburn.

Some lifestyle factors can also cause and contribute to heartburn. Excess stress and a lack of sleep can result in an increase in acid production, also contributing to heartburn. Smoking, in addition to all of its other harmful health effects, can relax the LES and stimulate stomach acid, serving as a major heartburn contributor.

Being overweight or obese can put pressure on your stomach, hindering the LES’s ability to close tightly.

Your doctor may prescribe medications to reduce the production of stomach acid, neutralize it and lessen the release of it, as well as medications that speed up the movement of food from your stomach to intestines.

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Gastroenterologists at Crozer Health are trained in some of the latest technologies and procedures to diagnose, manage and treat gastrointestinal and digestive conditions.