Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), acid reflux, or heartburn as it is more commonly referred to, is a condition most people experience at some point in their lives. For some people, spicy food may give them a burning feeling in their upper chest. For others, it could be burping up acidic liquid that burns the throat. Some people notice it most when they are standing up, others have more problems with acid reflux when they are lying down. No matter what may trigger your GERD or heartburn, you know it is uncomfortable. You may take some antacids or other form of over-the-counter medication for relief, but it keeps coming back. Is GERD just a harmless nuisance, or might it indicate a condition far more serious than simple heartburn? When should you see your doctor about acid reflux?
What exactly is GERD?
At the top of your stomach is a valve. It is a ring of muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). When you swallow food, this valve opens to admit the food into your stomach. Normally, the LES closes as soon as the food passes through. If this valve doesn’t close completely, or it opens too often, the acid produced in your stomach can travel up into your esophagus. This is painful, because the esophagus is lined with soft tissue that can be damaged by exposure to harsh stomach acid. That stomach acid is actually burning your esophagus, and you can feel it. This burning sensation in your chest is called heartburn, or acid reflux. If you are experiencing symptoms more than twice a week, then you have acid reflux disease, or GERD.
What Causes GERD?
A common cause of acid reflux is a stomach abnormality called a hiatal hernia. Normally, your diaphragm, a muscle that separates your stomach from your chest, helps keep acid in your stomach. But, when you have a hiatal hernia, the upper part of the stomach and the LES move above the diaphragm. When this happens, acid can move up into your esophagus and cause symptoms of acid reflux disease.
Other causes of acid reflux include:
- Lying down right after eating large meals
- Being obese or overweight
- Lying on your back or bending over after eating a heavy meal
- Eating certain foods such as citrus, chocolate, mint, tomato, garlic, onions, spicy or fatty foods.
- Snacking close to bedtime
- Drinking alcohol, coffee, tea or carbonated beverages
- Taking aspirin, ibuprofen, certain muscle relaxers, or blood pressure medications
- Being pregnant
When Should I See My Doctor About GERD?
If your symptoms occur occasionally, no more than twice a week, and easily respond to over-the-counter acid reducers, this rarely suggests a serious condition.
The GERD symptoms that suggest you need to visit your doctor, as they may pose a more serious problem, are as follows:
- Difficulty or pain swallowing
- Chest pain
- Symptoms persist for months to years
- Symptoms consistently wake you up at night
- Nausea or vomiting
- Drastic weight loss
- You have black or bloody bowel movements
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should seek a medical evaluation from your doctor, immediately. Constant or ongoing GERD over a period of years can put you at risk for esophageal bleeding and cancer. Serious GERD symptoms could represent complications such as Barrett’s esophagus or a narrowing in the esophagus. Barrett’s esophagus can also increase the risk of esophageal cancer.
If your GERD symptoms are not easily resolved after taking over-the-counter medication for two weeks, or if symptoms are not controlled with lifestyle modifications, you should see your doctor.
Concerned about GERD or other digestive issues? Then contact Austin Gastroenterology at (513) 579-3200. Austin Gastroenterology has locations from Georgetown to Kyle, and from Marble Falls to Bastrop. Clinic offices are where you’ll go for consultations, ongoing follow-ups, and more. For certain procedures, you will visit one of two endoscopy centers, conveniently located in North and South Austin. Austin Gastroenterology can help you take care of your digestive system, and enjoy a happy, healthy life.