The Importance of Seeking Treatment for GERD

Many people have occasional heartburn, especially during times of stress or after eating acidic foods. However, if you frequently experience burning pains in your chest and throat and cannot find lasting relief with over-the-counter medications, you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This condition occurs when stomach acids move up the esophagus, which cannot tolerate corrosive acids in the same way as the stomach lining. Left untreated, GERD will cause significant damage to your esophagus, which can lead to ulcers, bleeding, scarring, and even cancer.

What causes gastroesophageal reflux disease?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease is caused by a faulty lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which is a valve at the entrance of the stomach that prevents digestive acids from rising in the esophagus. One common cause of GERD is a hiatal hernia, a condition in which the LES and upper portion of the stomach protrude over the diaphragm, a muscle that normally helps prevent stomach acids from entering the esophagus. Certain lifestyle factors can also contribute to a weakened LES, including:

  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol, carbonated beverages, tea, or coffee
  • Being overweight
  • Eating spicy or fatty foods
  • Eating too much at one sitting
  • Lying down immediately after eating
  • Taking certain medications, such as muscle relaxers, ibuprofen, aspirin, and osteoporosis drugs

What are the symptoms of GERD?

Aside from burning pains in the stomach, chest, and throat, GERD can cause other unpleasant symptoms. You may experience regurgitation of stomach acids into your throat or mouth, causing a burning sensation and sour taste. Nausea, burping, bloating, dark stools, bloody vomit, and difficulty swallowing can also occur with gastroesophageal reflux disease.

How is GERD treated?

In some cases, you can eliminate your symptoms entirely with lifestyle changes, which include avoiding substances known to cause reflux, losing weight, eating smaller meals, not eating before bedtime, and elevating the head of your bed. You can also try over-the-counter antacids or H2 blockers to help manage your symptoms. If your symptoms fail to respond to at-home treatment, you should see your physician. Medical treatment for gastroesophageal reflux will consist of either prescription-strength medications or a surgical procedure called fundoplication, which strengthens the lower esophageal sphincter.

What happens if GERD is not treated?

Without treatment, chronic GERD will irritate and inflame the lining of the esophagus, causing ulcers and bleeding. Scarring can also occur, which will narrow the esophagus and make swallowing difficult. Additionally, stomach acids rising in the throat can lead to chronic hoarseness and respiratory problems, and if the acids make their way into the mouth, they can erode the tooth enamel. Constant exposure to stomach acids can alter the cells in the lining of the esophagus, which can lead to a precancerous condition called Barrett's esophagus. Early detection and treatment are key factors in not only relieving painful symptoms but also avoiding damage that can lead to esophageal cancer.