Understanding Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is a digestive disorder affecting the lower esophageal sphincter, or the LES.

When the LES does not function properly or relaxes too much, the contents of the stomach are allowed to pass back up to the esophagus. This is often referred to by patients as intense heartburn.

Symptoms

The main symptom of someone with GERD is frequent, intense heartburn. The severity of the heartburn varies with the functionality of the LES and the amount of stomach acid and fluids that are allowed to flow up from the stomach. When heartburn is made worse by bending or laying down, it is likely caused by GERD. You may also have difficulty swallowing or a sore throat.

Causes

Many doctors believe that people who suffer from a hiatal hernia are at increased risk of contracting GERD because the LES is weakened. A hiatal hernia occurs when part of the stomach moves through an opening in the diaphragm and into the chest. This mostly happens to middle-aged people from excessive coughing, vomiting, or straining, but pregnant women and obese people can also have a hiatal hernia.

In the same way, obesity and pregnancy increase the risk of GERD. This condition can also be brought on by poor diet and lifestyle choices. For example, cigarette smoking weakens the LES. Chocolate, fried foods, and alcoholic beverages also tend to trigger reflux and heartburn.

Treatment

People with GERD are encouraged to change their diets to lower their risk of a weakened LES. The foods and drinks mentioned above are to be avoided whenever possible, and smokers are urged to quit smoking. Since GERD is usually worst at night, eating several hours before bedtime helps to keep digestion going the right direction before laying down to go to sleep. You may also consider sleeping with your head elevated, keeping gravity on your side.

Many patients have found that nonprescription antacids help to keep heartburn at bay. However, if antacids are used too often or for too long, you may experience diarrhea or even kidney disease from an excess amount of magnesium.

For chronic reflux and heartburn, doctors often prescribe medications such as H2 blockers to reduce stomach acid. These include those common medications like Pepcid and Zantac. Proton pump inhibitors also inhibit the acid-creating enzymes from developing. These medications include Prilosec, Nexium, and Prevacid.

GERD is a difficult condition to live with, but relief is possible with the right lifestyle changes and medications. Consult with your doctor to find a treatment that is right for you.