Gastroesophageal Reflux, commonly referred to simply as reflux disease, acid reflux or GERD, occurs when the contents of the stomach re-enter the esophagus, the tube which connects your throat with your stomach, rather than entering the intestines for digestion.
This often occurs because of a weakness or failure of the muscles tasked with blocking stomach acid from entering the esophagus. Without proper management, this can be a painful, long term condition, and can lead to more serious conditions such as esophageal cancer if not properly treated. Acid reflux can occur at any age, though it becomes more common as you age. It is also experienced by up to half of pregnant women, though symptoms typically decline after delivery.
Risk Factors for Developing Acid Reflux
Certain conditions can increase your chances of developing acid reflux. Obese and pregnant people are more likely to experience heartburn as a result of acid reflux, as are smokers and those who suffer from dry mouth, asthma, diabetes and other connective tissue disorders such as scleroderma.
Two Most Common Symptoms of Acid Reflux
If you suffer from either of the following symptoms, you are likely suffering from acid reflux.
Heartburn is the most common symptom of acid reflux, typically experienced as a burning sensation in the upper chest. The burning often begins behind the clavicle where the esophagus is located and travels up the throat. This sensation occurs most commonly after eating and can last for up to two hours. Unpleasant burning is often exacerbated by lying down, especially on the back
Heartburn is often combined with an acidic or bitter taste in the mouth as acid is backed up the esophagus. Is more severe cases, this is also combined with a wet burp or even vomiting or regurgitation of undigested food.
These indicators also occur most commonly after eating or when lying down on your back. Sometimes standing up is enough to relieve symptoms to a manageable level.
Acid Reflux Versus a Heart Attack
The common chest pain experienced during a bout of acid reflux can sometimes be confused with the chest pain experienced during a heart attack. It is important to be able to differentiate between the two conditions. If your heartburn is accompanied by pain in your upper back, shoulder, neck or jaw, shortness of breath, excessive sweating, dizziness or light headedness, you may be experiencing a heart attack. Even if you are unsure, call 911 for emergency services right away.
Treating Your Acid Reflux
Chronic heartburn can keep you up at night and prevent you from engaging in previously enjoyable everyday activities. If you commonly experience the above symptoms, there is hope. Read further to learn about common methods of dealing with chronic heartburn.
Avoid Heartburn Triggering Foods and Beverages
If you are diagnosed with reflux disease, avoid consuming foods containing citrus fruits, spicy or fatty foods, garlic, onions, tomatoes or caffeinated and alcoholic beverages. Staying on top of your diet and avoiding these foods can in some cases help eliminate up to 90 percent of your heartburn symptoms. While these foods are the ones most likely to jumpstart your heartburn, each individual is different. Pay attention to what you are consuming and note when you experience heartburn by keeping a food journal. Begin eliminating the foods most likely to trigger symptoms from your diet. Eating smaller, more frequent meals may also help reduce the backup of undigested food and stomach acid into your esophagus.
Elevate Your Bed
Heartburn and nausea are often exacerbated when you lie down on your back, preventing you from engaging in truly restful sleep. Elevating your bed allows gravity to do its work, keeping your stomach acid in your stomach where it belongs.
Common over-the-counter medications such as antacids and diarrhea medications can temporarily relieve symptoms of acid reflux disease. Your primary care provider or a gastroenterologist may be able to prescribe other medications such as proton-pump inhibitors that decrease the release of acid within the stomach.
Long Term Consequences of Acid Reflux
Leaving your acid reflux untreated not only exposes you to unnecessary discomfort, it can also lead to long term health problems. Consistent exposure of esophageal tissue to the acids of your stomach can cause painful sores within the tissue lining. In some populations, this can lead to a condition called Barrett’s Esophagus, in which abnormal cells take the place of damaged tissue, drastically increasing the chances of esophageal cancer. Damaged tissue can cause blood to pass into the digestive tract or cause a permanent narrowing of the esophageal tube, leading to painful chest spasms. Luckily, many of these serious consequences are avoidable with treatment.
The best options are typically a combination of lifestyle changes, behavior modification and medication If you find yourself experiencing any of the symptoms of acid reflux, speak with your doctor to gain an official diagnosis and to learn about all possible treatment options.