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Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease - Commonly Asked Questions

GERD (or Gastroesophageal reflux disease) occurs when a small valve between the stomach and the esophagus leaks, causing digestive fluids and stomach acid to back up from the stomach into the esophagus. The process is call reflux.

In the digestive system, muscular tissues called sphincters act as gates, allowing food to move from one digestive organ to the next. When the esophageal sphincter stops working correctly, stomach contents, including digestive acid, can flow back into the esophagus.

Acid in it s proper place does not cause problems. But when it frequently comes back up, the acid can irritate the esophagus, leading to the symptoms of GERN. The acids can also damage the delicate lining on the inside of the esophagus, leading to more serious problems in some patients.

What are the symptoms?

Frequent heartburn is the most common symptom of GERD, and often occurs after meals. It is described as an uncomfortable, rising, burning sensation behind the breastbone. Although it has nothing to do with the heart, the location of the pain has led to the popular name "heartburn". Other major symptoms of GERD are: regurgitation of gastric acid or sour contents into the mouth, difficult and / or painful swallowing.

It seems that everyone has heart burn. When should I see a doctor ?

Complications from GERD range from discomfort to esophagitis (an inflammation of the esophagus). GERD can also precipitate asthma and chronic hoarseness. One of the most serious complications is a pre-cancerous condition known as Barrett's esophagus, which can develop into esophageal cancer.

Unfortunately, most people don’t see a doctor until they already have a serious complication. You should see your doctor if you are older than 40 and your symptoms do not respond readily to lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medicines, or it you experience blood loss, have difficulty swallowing, experience severe or exertion-related chest discomfort or a rapid worsening of your symptoms.

What can I do to reduce symptoms or avoid reflux disease?

1. Bed Blocks

Elevate the head of your bed 2-6 inches with wood block or bricks. Using a foam wedge beneath the upper half of the body is an alternative. Using extra pillows is NOT a good substitute.

2.Avoid Foods If They Cause Symptoms

Foods that may aggravate symptoms include spicy and fatty foods; milk, tomato and citrus fruits, which have high acid content; cholotate, mints coffee, tea, colas, and alcoholic beverages.

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Copyright 2015 Washington University School of Medicine