Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) – or reflux for short – is a digestive condition in which contents from the stomach leak backwards into the esophagus, causing irritation and a painful burning sensation known as heartburn. This widespread condition affects more than 60 million Americans at least once a month.
Symptoms & Causes of Acid Reflux
Normally when we eat, the food we swallow travels through the esophagus before arriving in the stomach, where hydrochloric acid is produced to help aid in digestion. This acid is kept in place by a ring of muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter. This valve-like organ relaxes during swallowing to allow food to pass through, and tightens afterwards to prevent it from refluxing, or flowing backwards into the esophagus. In persons with GERD, the sphincter remains relaxed after swallowing occurs, allowing stomach acids to seep upwards, damaging the lining of the esophagus.
Heartburn, or acid indigestion, is the primary symptom of GERD. Named for the proximity of the esophagus to the heart, this painful burning sensation radiates from the stomach to the abdomen and chest, and may move into the throat. It is often accompanied by regurgitation, the sensation of acid in your throat or mouth that leaves a sour taste, and dyspepsia, stomach discomfort that includes burping, bloating, nausea, and pain. Symptoms generally occur after eating, and can worsen when lying down, bending over, or lifting an object.
A variety of factors can contribute to GERD. Diet plays a big role; fatty and fried foods, spicy foods, acidic foods, caffeine, and alcohol can all weaken the sphincter. Lifestyle, eating habits, certain medications, and medical conditions (especially hiatal hernia, pregnancy, and diabetes) may all trigger or worsen reflux.
Prevention is the most effective method of dealing with GERD. Avoiding the triggers that cause acid indigestion is key. Eliminate foods and beverages that cause an adverse effect. Lifestyle changes – eating smaller portions, giving up cigarettes, losing weight, switching medications – can also help.
Over-the-counter antacids offer prevention and immediate relief by neutralizing stomach acids. Prescription histamine blockers (such as Pepcid and Tagamet) and proton pump inhibitors (like Prilosec or Prevacid) offer stronger relief.
When medications and lifestyle changes are ineffective and heartburn is severe, surgery may be considered, but it’s usually a last-ditch solution.