Food travels through your esophagus in about one hour. Once food enters your esophagus, it needs to pass through it before it can exit your body.
Your esophagus has a muscular ring called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The LES is like a gatekeeper to keep food from traveling up into your stomach. If it’s open, food can easily travel up your esophagus. If it’s tight, food can’t easily pass into your stomach.
Your LES is also responsible for controlling your LES opening. If it’s closed, it’s called a hiatal hernia. A hiatal hernia occurs when the lower portion of the esophagus is pushed through the muscle into the chest. This can reduce the amount of food that can be eaten.
Your LES also regulates how much food you can swallow. If the LES is weak, you may not be able to fully swallow food. This can lead to heartburn and acid reflux.
What is GERD?
GERD is a long-term condition that causes the LES to relax. This allows food and acid to back up into the esophagus. This is called acid reflux.
GERD is a chronic condition that occurs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The LES doesn’t relax as often as it should. This is called a hiatal hernia.
GERD is associated with a variety of other health conditions, including:
- Sleep apnea
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
What are the symptoms of GERD?
GERD is associated with symptoms that include:
- Acid reflux
What causes GERD?
GERD is the result of a combination of factors.
The first factor is the presence of acid in your stomach. Your stomach produces acid as a defense against your body’s natural digestive process. If your stomach is producing too much acid, it can irritate your esophagus.
The second factor is the strength of the LES. When the LES is weak, it’s difficult to keep acid from refluxing into your esophagus.
The third factor is a problem with relaxation of the LES. When the LES isn’t as relaxed as it should be, it’s difficult for acid to pass into your esophagus.
What are the risk factors for GERD?
There are several risk factors for GERD. These include:
- Age. GERD is more common in older adults.
- Hiatal hernia. GERD is more common in people who have a hiatal hernia.
- Eating large meals. Eating more than four meals a day increases the risk of GERD.
- Smoking. Smoking is also associated with GERD.
- Obesity. Obesity is associated with GERD.
- Heartburn medications. Certain medications, such as H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors, can cause GERD.
- Chronic lung disease. Chronic lung disease places extra pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter. This can cause it to relax and allow acid to back up into the esophagus.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is more common among people with certain heartburn medications.
How is GERD diagnosed?
A doctor will usually diagnose GERD by physical exam and a review of your medical history.
They may also take a sample of your saliva to check for abnormal levels of stomach acid. This can help your doctor determine whether your GERD is caused by a physical condition or a medication.
If your doctor suspects you have GERD, they may recommend other tests to confirm your diagnosis.
How is GERD treated?
Treatment for GERD depends on the cause.
Treatments for GERD include:
- Using over-the-counter medications to neutralize stomach acid.
- Taking antacids. These are a combination of a salt and an acid, such as aluminum or calcium carbonate.
- Taking an H2 blocker. These medications reduce the amount of acid that your stomach produces.
- Taking a proton pump inhibitor. These medications block the production of acid in your stomach.
- Taking a chaser. These medications increase the amount of acid your stomach produces.
You may be advised to avoid certain foods or beverages that may trigger or worsen your symptoms.
The best way to manage GERD is to treat the underlying condition that’s causing it.
What is the outlook for GERD?
GERD is a chronic condition that may take months to heal.
If you’re diagnosed with GERD, you may find it difficult to find a treatment that works well for you. Your doctor should work with you to find the best treatment plan for you.
What is the difference between heartburn and GERD?
Heartburn is not a disease. It’s a symptom. Heartburn is common, especially in older adults.
GERD is a chronic condition that can be managed with medications, lifestyle changes, and dietary changes.
Heartburn and GERD have many symptoms in common. For example, both conditions cause acid reflux and can cause heartburn.
What are the complications of GERD?
Complications of GERD are rare. Heartburn is more common.
When GERD isn’t treated, it can lead to Barrett’s esophagus. This is when the cells of the esophagus change over time.
The cells grow inward, which makes it hard to heal. This can lead to cancer.
Treatment for GERD
GERD can be treated with lifestyle changes, medications, and dietary changes.
You can try to treat GERD by limiting the amount of salt and other types of acid in your diet. This includes foods like:
Other dietary changes that may help include:
- Eating smaller meals
- Eating more frequently throughout the day
- Eating smaller, more frequent meals
You can also try lifestyle changes to reduce symptoms of GERD. These include:
- Avoiding spicy, acidic, or fatty foods
- Avoiding alcohol
- Avoiding caffeine
- Keeping your head elevated
- Using an antacid
- Taking over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as antacids
The most common type of medication that people take to treat GERD is an H2 blocker. These medications work by reducing the amount of acid your stomach makes.
Other medications that people may take to treat GERD include:
- Proton pump inhibitors
- Prokinetics (which help regulate stomach emptying)
- Endoscopic surgery
If lifestyle changes, dietary changes, or medications aren’t effective, you may need to have surgery.
If you have Barrett’s esophagus, you may need surgery to remove the esophagus.
How to prevent GERD?
There are things you can do to prevent GERD. These include:
- Avoiding foods that trigger heartburn.
- Avoiding foods that are spicy, acidic, or fatty.
- Avoiding alcohol.
- Avoiding caffeine.
- Keeping your head elevated.
- Using an antacid.
- Taking OTC medications, such as antacids.
When to see your doctor?
See your doctor if you have:
- GERD that isn’t well controlled
- Barrett’s esophagus
- Hiatal hernia
GERD can lead to serious complications. If you have GERD that’s not well controlled, you may have:
- Heartburn that doesn’t go away
Heartburn and GERD are often confused with each other. They’re both caused by acid Reflux and can cause heartburn.
Heartburn and GERD are both common symptoms. However, GERD is more common and it’s possible to have heartburn without GERD.
Heartburn is more common in older adults and in people with other medical conditions. GERD is more common in people who have a hole in their esophagus.
Heartburn and GERD can both cause heartburn and can also lead to serious complications.
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