Gastroesophageal reflux is the normal occurrence of gastric contents back-flowing into the esophagus. We all experience this phenomenon occasionally throughout the day. When this natural occurrence results in discomfort or other symptoms, we call it gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. The most common symptoms are heartburn – a burning sensation in the chest or throat, and regurgitation – the sensation of stomach or food contents rising up into the chest and the back of the throat. Although these two symptoms are far and away most common, they are not the only symptoms related to GERD. Symptoms can range from difficulty or pain on swallowing, chest discomfort, nausea, a sour taste in the back of the throat, a cough, sore throat, or a sensation of a lump in the throat.
Many people will experience symptoms of GERD occasionally. If a person experiences frequent symptoms, further evaluation is warranted. Those at greatest risk of GERD are those who are overweight and those over age 50. Many pregnant women will experience symptoms of GERD that resolve after delivery.
GERD in and of itself is not dangerous, although it can be very bothersome. The complications of GERD raise significant concern, chiefly, inflammation of the esophagus, called esophagitis, and abnormal tissue that can form in the esophagus termed Barrett’s esophagus. Barrett’s esophagus forms due to long term acid exposure at the bottom of the esophagus. The body responds to this long-term acid exposure by changing the tissue in an attempt to protect itself. Unfortunately, this misplaced tissue significantly raises the risk of developing esophageal cancer. Risk factors for Barrett’s esophagus are smoking, male sex, Caucasian ethnicity, obesity, and age greater than 50.
If experiencing symptoms frequently, or if the patient has risk factors for Barrett’s esophagus as listed above, then further medical evaluation should be sought. Frequently physicians will recommend an upper endoscopy, a procedure performed under anesthesia where light and camera are passed through the mouth into the esophagus and stomach. This quick procedure can help rule out any complications related to GERD.
Patients with straightforward GERD tend to respond well to numerous medications available that lower stomach acid. Medications can range from medications used only when symptoms flare up, to longer-term medications to halt the progression of Barrett’s esophagus. These medications have proven through rigorous studies to be safe and effective. If experiencing symptoms of GERD, please reach out to your primary care physician or the Phelps gastroenterology division for further evaluation and advice.