Gastroesophageal reflux disease

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Do you feel a burning in your chest not long after you eat or lie down? If so, you may have Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.

When we swallow food, it travels down our esophagus into the stomach, where it's greeted by a rush of Hydrochloric acid in the stomach to begin digestion. This acid is so powerful, it could eat the paint right off your car!

Fortunately, there's a band of muscle between the stomach and the esophagus - called the Lower Esophageal Sphincter or L-E-S, that clamps down to prevent the stomach contents from moving or "refluxing" upward and burning the lining of the esophagus. If that band of muscle does not adequately clamp down, this backwash causes the irritation and burning that's known as heartburn or GERD.

Maintaining good tight L-E-S muscle tone is the key to preventing this condition.

Causes of GERD include: being overweight, smoking, and drinking too much alcohol. Certain foods, like chocolate and peppermint and if you're a woman, pregnancy can bring on GERD

To determine if you have GERD,your doctor may request an upper endoscopy exam to look into your esophagus and stomach to diagnose reflux. Other tests can measure the acid and amount of pressure in your esophagus, or if you have blood in your stool.

If you do have GERD, lifestyle changes can help. First, avoid foods that cause problems for you and avoid eating large meals. If you're a little on the heavy side, try to lose some weight. Since most GERD symptoms are experienced lying down in bed, let gravity help. Elevating the head of your bed 4-6 inches using blocks of wood may help.

If symptoms continue, see your doctor or a Gastroenterologist for evaluation and an upper endoscopy exam. Your doctor may suggest you take over-the-counter antacids or may prescribe stronger medications.
Call your doctor if you are bleeding, feel like you are choking, have trouble-swallowing, or experience sudden weight loss.

The good news is most people who have GERD do not need surgery. For the worst cases, surgeons may perform a laparoscopic procedure to tighten a weak L-E-S muscle.

If you have occasional heartburn, antacid tablets can be used as needed. However! If you're having heartburn more than 3-4 times a week, see your doctor & take the prescribed medication to prevent this condition.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 10/25/2011
  • Alan Greene, MD, Author and Practicing Pediatrician; also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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