The Hidden Dangers Of Acid Reflux

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Many of us experience heartburn from time to time – that burning feeling in your upper chest or the sensation of a lump sitting in your “food pipe” – which we usually attribute to spicy foods eaten too close to bedtime.

But if you’re popping antacids right and left, it might be time to seek help. Left untreated, heartburn (also known as acid reflux) can result in a more serious condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. In turn, GERD can lead to more life-threatening conditions – including esophageal cancer.

What Causes Acid Reflux And GERD?

Acid reflux occurs when gastric acid flowing from your stomach backs up into your food pipe (esophagus). A muscle at the bottom of the esophagus opens to let food in the stomach, then closes it to keep it in. This muscle is called the LES or lower esophageal sphincter. When your LES relaxes too often or for too long, acid backs up, injuring the esophagus and producing a burning feeling. This is often referred to as “acid reflux.”

Unfortunately, an unhealthy lifestyle is often to blame. Causes of heartburn include:

  • Excess weight
  • Consuming too much caffeine or alcohol
  • Eating citrus, chocolate, and fatty or spicy foods
  • Overeating
  • Smoking
  • Use of aspirin or NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen)

“Even wearing tight clothing can result in GERD,” says general surgeon L. Stewart Lowry, MD, FACS “or a job or some occupation that requires you to do a lot of bending over all the time.”

Some illnesses, like gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining) and ulcers of the stomach, esophagus and duodenum (upper small intestine) can create heartburn. Hiatal hernias, pregnancy, age and exposure to second-hand smoke are also risk factors.

When Should I See A Doctor?

Serious acid reflux can wreak havoc with your quality of life. “GERD is something that can take over your life,” warns Dr. Lowry. “GERD can interrupt your sleep. It can force you to...not eat things that you otherwise would like to. It can force you to eat at certain times of the day and not at others.”

Dr. Lowry talks about how GERD can affect quality of life.

Click play to watch the video or read video transcript.

Routine heartburn (once a week or less) usually can be treated with over-the counter medicines, such as antacids. But if you aren’t sure of which medicines to take, go see your doctor. In addition, call your doctor if symptoms are occurring more than twice a week.

Also, “there are certain alarm features that patients should see their doctors for immediately,” says Dr. Lowry. These symptoms include painful or difficult swallowing, bleeding out from either end of the body, recurrent vomiting or anemia, or unexplained weight loss.

Dr. Lowry talks about when to seek medical attention.

Click play to watch the video or read video transcript.

What About Treatment?

If your doctor diagnoses acid reflux or GERD, he or she might first work with you on lifestyle changes and suggest over-the-counter or prescription medication. For more severe cases, there are surgical options, according to Dr. Lowry. Most result in “a kind of rewrapping of the stomach around the esophagus or a folding of the stomach into the esophagus to reestablish the one-way valve at the stomach and esophagus junction.”

Dr. Lowry talks about surgical options.

Click play to watch the video or read video transcript.

Surgical options include a procedure called Nissen fundoplication which involves wrapping the upper part of the stomach around the esophagus and sewing it into place. Ideally, this surgery strengthens the LES valve between the esophagus and stomach and stops acid from backing up into the esophagus. In most cases, people who have this surgery find it improves their symptoms and heals damage previously done to the esophagus. Over time some people report their symptoms have returned, with trouble swallowing, increased gas, and/or trouble belching. 

A newer surgical option involves implanting a ring of tiny magnetic beads (called a LINX) around your esophagus where it meets the stomach. The magnetic attraction between the beads holds the esophagus closed. When food slides through the esophagus it pushes the beads apart allowing the food to pass into the stomach, but not allowing acid to back up into the esophagus causing heartburn.

Ask your doctor about the pros and cons of each surgical procedure and whether one of them might be right for you.

Is It Heartburn or a heart attack?

Finally, it’s important to note the difference between heartburn and chest pain caused by a serious heart condition. Sometimes, it’s even difficult for medical professionals to know until tests are performed, says Dr. Lowry.

“If someone isn’t sure whether they’re having angina or chest pain from a heart problem or heartburn like GERD, then they need to go to an emergency room,” he explains. “Because if it is angina, if it’s an acute coronary syndrome, something from the heart, it can be a life-threatening situation.”

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