Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is a chronic digestive disorder that occurs when stomach acid or bile flows back into your food pipe (esophagus). The backwash (reflux) irritates and inflames the lining of your esophagus, which can cause symptoms like heartburn. Over time, the inflammation can wear away the esophageal lining, which may result in complications such as bleeding, esophageal narrowing or Barrett's esophagus (a precancerous condition).
Approximately seven million men and women in the U.S. have some symptoms of GERD, though certain conditions can make some people more prone. For example, GERD can be a serious problem during pregnancy, when elevated hormone levels and abdominal pressure from the fetus can increase reflux. Some foods can also trigger symptoms, as can smoking and being overweight.
GERD is rarely life-threatening, though it is a chronic disease that can disrupt your quality of life.
Symptoms of GERD
Common signs and symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease include:
- A burning sensation in your chest (heartburn), sometimes spreading to your throat, along with a sour taste in your mouth
- Chest pain
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- Dry cough
- Hoarseness or sore throat
- Regurgitation of food or sour liquid (acid reflux)
- Sensation of a lump in your throat
Sometimes, the symptoms of GERD can resemble those of heart failure. If you’re experiencing chest pain or breathing problems, call 9-1-1 or visit your nearest emergency room.
Both acid reflux and heartburn are common digestive conditions that many people experience from time to time. But when these symptoms start to occur frequently and interfere with your daily life, it’s important to seek medical attention.
At CHI Health, our digestive health specialists use a variety of tests to diagnose GERD, including:
- Ambulatory acid (pH) probe test: The device identifies when, and for how long, stomach acid regurgitates into your esophagus. One type of monitor is a thin, flexible tube (catheter) that's threaded through your nose into your esophagus. The tube connects to a small computer that you wear around your waist or with a strap over your shoulder.
- X-ray of your upper digestive system: Sometimes called a barium swallow or upper GI series, this procedure involves drinking a chalky liquid that coats and fills the inside lining of your digestive tract. The coating allows your doctor to see a silhouette of your esophagus, stomach and upper intestine.
- Endoscopy: During this procedure, performed at our state-of-the-art Endoscopy Center, a thin, flexible tube equipped with a light and camera (endoscope) is inserted down your throat. This allows your doctor to see any inflammation or irritation of the tissue lining the esophagus (esophagitis). If the findings of the endoscopy are abnormal or questionable, a biopsy from the lining of the esophagus may be helpful.
Treatment for heartburn and other symptoms of GERD usually begins with over-the-counter medications that control acid. Avoiding personal trigger food and beverages, like chocolate, peppermint, coffee or alcohol, can also be effective. Many overweight people find relief when they lose weight, and quitting smoking can often reduce symptoms.
If you don't experience relief within a few weeks, your doctor may recommend other treatments, including prescription medications and in the most severe cases, surgery. Two common procedures we perform include:
- Nissen fundoplication, a surgery that helps prevent reflux by wrapping the very top of the stomach around the outside of the lower esophagus. CHI surgeons usually perform this surgery laparoscopically, inserting a flexible tube with a tiny camera, through three or four small incisions in the abdomen.
- A ring of tiny magnetic titanium beads that is wrapped around the junction of the stomach and esophagus. The magnetic attraction between the beads is strong enough to keep the opening between the two closed to refluxing acid, but weak enough so that food can pass through it. It can be implanted using minimally invasive surgery methods.
Our CHI Health primary care providers can determine if you need a specialist, and work closely with our board-certified gastroenterology team. Together, we will evaluate your condition and develop an individualized care plan with the latest treatments and support. If you’re experiencing GERD symptoms, don’t wait. Contact your primary care provider to find the right treatment for you.
If you'd like to request an appointment with a GERD specialist, fill out our form or call (402) 717-4900.