Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition in which the stomach contents (food or liquid) leak backwards from the stomach into the esophagus (the tube from the mouth to the stomach). This action can irritate the esophagus, causing heartburn and other symptoms.
When you eat, food passes from the throat to the stomach through the esophagus (also called the food pipe or swallowing tube). Once food is in the stomach, a ring of muscle fibers prevents food from moving backward into the esophagus. These muscle fibers are called the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES.
If this sphincter muscle doesn't close well, food, liquid, and stomach acid can leak back into the esophagus. This is called reflux or gastroesophageal reflux. Reflux may cause symptoms, or it can even damage the esophagus.
The risk factors for reflux include:
Hiatal hernia (a condition in which part of the stomach moves above the diaphragm, which is the muscle that separates the chest and abdominal cavities)
You may not need any tests if your symptoms are not severe.
If your symptoms are severe or they come back after you have been treated, one or more tests may help diagnose reflux or any complications:
Esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD) is often used to find the cause and examine the esophagus (swallowing tube) for damage. The doctor inserts a thin tube with a camera on the end through your mouth. The tube is then passed into your esophagus, stomach, and small intestine.
Avoid drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn). Take acetaminophen (Tylenol) to relieve pain. Take your medicines with plenty of water. When your doctor gives you a new medicine, remember to ask whether it will make your heartburn worse.
You may use over-the-counter antacids after meals and at bedtime, although they do not last very long. Common side effects of antacids include diarrhea or constipation.
Other over-the-counter and prescription drugs can treat GERD. They work more slowly than antacids but give you longer relief. Your pharmacist, doctor, or nurse can tell you how to take these drugs.
Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) decrease the amount of acid produced in your stomach
H2 blockers (antagonists) lower the amount of acid released in the stomach
Anti-reflux operations (fundoplication and others) may be an option for patients whose symptoms do not go away with lifestyle changes and drugs. Heartburn and other symptoms should improve after surgery, but you may still need to take drugs for your heartburn.
There are also new therapies for reflux that can be performed through an endoscope (a flexible tube passed through the mouth into the stomach).
Most people respond to lifestyle changes and medications. However, many patients need to continue taking drugs to control their symptoms.
Stricture (a narrowing of the esophagus due to scarring)
Calling your health care provider
Call your health care provider if symptoms worsen or do not improve with lifestyle changes or medication.
Also call for any of the following symptoms:
Choking (coughing, shortness of breath)
Feeling filled up quickly when eating
Loss of appetite
Trouble swallowing (dysphagia) or pain with swallowing (odynophagia)
Follow heartburn prevention techniques to prevent GERD.
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Galmiche JP, Hatlebakk J, Attwood S, et al. Laparoscopic antireflux surgery vs esomeprazole treatment for chronic GERD: the LOTUS randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2011;305:1969-1977.
George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.