The ABCs of GERD

January 17, 2010

What causes GERD?

The main cause of GERD is the reflux (backward flow) of liquid from the stomach into the esophagus due to weak contraction, abnormal relaxation or other disorders of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). These conditions cause heartburn, the term that describes the painful burning sensation in the middle of the chest usually accompanied by a sour, bitter taste in the throat, dizziness and nausea. While these types of symptoms may have other causes, they usually result from eating too much food, eating oily or spicy food, or going to sleep too soon after eating. Aside from food, other known causes of heartburn include alcohol consumption, smoking, pregnancy, asthma, obesity and stress.

From minor to serious

Although heartburn is certainly not pleasant, it typically doesn't lead to serious health problems, and most patients treat it successfully by taking antacid tablets. But patients who suffer frequent bouts of heartburn over time face a higher risk for eventually developing GERD. And when GERD is left untreated, more serious problems including ulcers and strictures in the esophagus can develop. In the most serious cases, cells can mutate to become malignant and lead to esophageal cancer, one of the most deadly types of cancer.

Diagnosing GERD

Doctors can usually diagnose early stage GERD by gathering patient information and asking questions. When the condition is more severe, the doctor may conduct one or more diagnostic procedures to assess the patient's condition. The most commonly used procedures include pH testing of the patient's acid levels - either by inserting a tiny measuring device through an ultra-thin plastic catheter into the esophagus, or by taking an X-ray image of the digestive tract (prior to the X-ray, the patient drinks a barium solution that helps produce high quality images of internal organs and surrounding areas), and endoscopy - a procedure involving the use of a tiny camera that is inserted into the upper intestinal tract through a catheter to capture high resolution images of the esophagus.

Lowering your risk

Preventing GERD isn't difficult; the easiest way is through healthier lifestyle choices, especially watching and controlling the amount and the types of food you eat. Heartburn can usually be avoided by eating your last meal of the day at least three hours before bedtime, limiting alcohol consumption, avoiding smoking, wearing comfortable instead of tight-fitting clothing, and sleeping on a mattress with sufficient back support.

While this covers the basics of GERD, if you want to learn more, or if you suspect you may be suffering from the disease, be sure to contact your doctor for more information and for an assessment of your individual situation. That's far better than leaving your condition alone and untreated, until it becomes a more serious problem.

Know the Warning Signs

Contact your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms:
  • A painful burning sensation in the chest that occurs at least twice in one week;
  • Having difficulty swallowing, painful swallowing, or feeling as if something is stuck in your throat;
  • The presence of a bloody or dark-colored substance in vomit;
  • Your condition doesn't improve after a few days of taking antacid medication;
  • Pain in your chest, jaws or arms together with difficulty breathing and/or an irregular pulse.

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