Reflux Disease Can Lead to a New Normal Lifestyle

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Gastroesophageal reflux disease – known as GERD – is more than just an occasional nuisance for some people. The disease negatively affects the quality of life of least 20 percent of Americans, says surgeon Stewart Lowry, MD.

“GERD is something that can take over someone’s life,” says Dr. Lowry. “It can interrupt someone’s sleep and can force them to eat things they otherwise would not like, or at times, aren’t necessarily convenient. Tests have proven what we suspected: People with GERD can have a poor quality of life.”

People commonly call GERD heartburn or acid reflux, and it is often described as a burning feeling in the chest, right behind the breastbone.

More than half of Americans experience GERD symptoms at some point during a year, and between 20 percent and 30 percent of people experience it more often.

Most GERD symptoms can be treated by over-the-counter medication or lifestyle changes. But, some GERD cases need medical attention, Dr. Lowry says.

“Painful or difficult swallowing, bleeding, vomiting or anemia, which results in low blood count or unexplained weight loss are symptoms that need to be taken seriously,” he says. “In some situations, acid reflux can be a very serious medical condition. It can scar the lower esophagus, which can eventually block swallowing, or there can be a change in the lower esophagus, known as Barrett’s esophagus, which is a precursor to cancer.”

The number of GERD cases has been on the rise. Hospitalizations from a primary or secondary GERD diagnosis increased more than 200 percent between 1998 and 2005, according to a health care research collaboration called HCUP, which includes various government health agencies and national health care associations.

Jerry Ballard of Troy, knows how quickly acid reflux can progress and take over a person’s life.

When over-the-counter medicine stopped helping manage his GERD, Ballard reached out to a digestive specialist.

Food wasn’t going down his esophagus smoothly, and sometimes it would feel stuck. Ballard tried a prescription medicine for a couple months, but when an increased dosage wasn’t helping, he and his doctor knew they needed to find a new option.

Imaging showed the muscle between Ballard’s esophagus and stomach had grown from its regular circular size to an oval shape. It was found that he had a hiatal hernia, a condition in which part of the stomach pushes up into the esophagus.  

Ballard was referred to Dr. Lowry, who recommended a common, minimally invasive surgery called Nissen fundoplication. About 85 percent of surgeries performed for GERD include Nissen fundoplication.

The surgery is done through five small incisions around the stomach. It takes the upper curve of the stomach and wraps it around the esophagus.

The stomach is then sewn in place so the lower part of the esophagus can pass through a small tunnel of stomach muscle. This strengthens the valve between the esophagus and stomach and helps stop acid from backing up into the esophagus.

Ballard’s hiatal hernia, which can cause GERD, was also repaired during the surgery.

Within days of the surgery, Ballard could already notice a difference and was pleased with the outcome. He was amazed at the small amount of discomfort in the incision area. Within three days he could tell that his food was going down much better.

“I would say that in most cases, this type of surgery can cure GERD,” Dr. Lowry says. “A larger percentage of patients are able to stop their medication after surgery and enjoy long-lasting improvement of their quality of life.”

Before surgery, Ballard’s GERD had gotten so bad that he was waking up every couple hours each night because of the stomach pain and bloating. He’s excited to make a new beginning.

“I can say my outlook and approach to the things in life finally look doable. I finally want to do things again,” Ballard says. “I am already seeing that I can return to the top of my game.”

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