Maybe It's Not Just Heartburn?

One day you realize that you take an antacid after nearly every meal you eat. The heartburn happens with most foods and the pain is getting worse. This may not just be a case of heartburn, but gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). If you don't seek medical care for it, you could soon be faced with esophageal ulcers and even cancer. Here is what you need to know about GERD and why it's a serious threat to your health.     

GERD Means a Damaged Stomach and Esophagus

Between your esophagus and stomach is a small muscular valve that opens and closes, allowing food to enter your stomach, but preventing the stomach acid from coming out. When this valve fails, stomach acid leaks into the esophagus, irritating the tissues there. The irritation is what you experience as heartburn. If the valve fails constantly, then each time you eat, acid will come out of the stomach and irritate the esophagus.

If this continues, the acid destroys the tissue in the esophagus causing bleeding and ulcers. You may find the stomach acid make its way up into your throat and mouth, burning the tissues there. Swallowing can become hard to do. Eventually, the antacids do little to reduce the pain. Long-term GERD can result in cancer cells appearing in the damaged part of the esophagus.

Getting Evaluated and Treated for GERD

An internal medicine doctor will do blood tests and X-rays to determine the extent of the damage. They may ask the gastrointestinal specialists to perform an endoscopy to look down into your esophagus to see the damage directly. It may be necessary to collect a sample of the damaged tissue to analyze it for cancerous cells. Once they know the extent of the tissue damage, your physician will recommend one or more treatment options.

Treating GERD

The treatments will initially be focused on reducing the irritation to the tissue in the esophagus to prevent further damage. If the muscular valve is no longer doing its job, surgical repairs may be necessary to prevent a recurrence.

  • Diet changes - Your doctor will go over a list of foods that you should avoid. These are foods with a high acidic content that will irritate the esophagus, such as citrus fruits and coffee. Other foods to avoid will be those that cause your stomach to produce an excess of stomach acid, such as fatty foods and alcohol.
  • Lifestyle changes - Your doctor will also recommend some behavioral changes to reduce the effects of GERD on your health. These will include eating smaller portions at mealtime and allowing several hours to pass between eating and going to bed.
  • Prescription medications - These reduce the amount of stomach acid produced. Most of these are taken daily and before you eat.
  • Surgical repair - The muscular valve can be reconstructed to close completely. When the damage is severe, a section of the esophagus can be removed to prevent the risk of cancer.

Don't ignore that persistent heartburn. It might be GERD and a serious risk to your health. See your doctor for a complete evaluation before more damage happens.