It may be confusing to know if you have heartburn, acid indigestion, or a more serious condition than gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The esophagus is the “throat tube” that connects your mouth to your stomach. When the muscle at the end of your esophagus doesn’t close properly, allowing stomach contents to leak (reflux) into the esophagus, it can cause a burning sensation (heartburn), or you may taste stomach acid or bile in the back of your mouth (acid indigestion).
The key to knowing if you need to see a doctor is recognizing if you have symptoms more than twice a week, or to the extent that it interferes with daily life—this may indicate GERD. Some questions you may want to ask about GERD could include:
- Who gets GERD? Anyone can get the condition, from infants and children to adults. GERD often can develop in pregnancy. Other behaviors or conditions that could lead to GERD are smoking, obesity, asthma, diabetes, schleroderma, hiatal hernia, and Zollinger-Ellison syndrome.
- As an adult, how can I lower my risk factors for having digestion problems like GERD? Many people can reduce their symptoms by making lifestyle changes and using over-the-counter medications. Other ways include:
- avoid alcohol and spicy, fatty, or acidic foods known to trigger heartburn
- eat small meals
- do not eat before bedtime
- lose weight (if over weight)
- wear loose-fitting clothes
- How is GERD diagnosed? Your doctor may perform some tests to see if you have GERD, such as endoscopy, x-ray, testing the movement of the esophagus, or conducting what’s called an ambulatory acid (pH) probe test.
- How is GERD treated? Treatment depends on the age of the patient in addition to the severity of the case and considering what damage may have been done to the esophagus. Doctors may prescribe medication (over-the-counter or prescribed) such as antacids, acid reducers, proton pump inhibitors, or they may recommend surgery.
- At what point should I consider surgery? If GERD does not respond to medications or changes in diet and nutrition, your doctor may suggest laparoscopic surgery. Types of surgery may include reinforcing the lower esophageal sphincter (Nissen fundoplication), surgery to create a barrier preventing stomach acid backup (EndoCinch endoluminal gastroplication), or a procedure to generate scar tissue in the esophagus (Stretta system).
- How is stress and what I eat related to GERD? Stress does not cause GERD, although it can make GERD harder to control. What you eat can exacerbate GERD so it's important to monitor symptoms and what triggers them, then avoid those things. Discuss options with your doctor to improve wellness.
- Is alternative therapy an option? Commonly used alternative therapies include herbal and relaxation treatments, and acupuncture. Side effects and ineffectiveness of conventional therapy would be a reason to consider alternative care. Alternative therapies have not shown to cure GERD, however it may reduce discomfort.
- Will GERD increase my risk for developing esophageal cancer? If untreated, GERD could increase the risk for Barrett’s esophagus. Your doctor will recommend regular endoscopy to monitor and catch early warning signs of cancer developing, so it is important to work with your doctor on a wellness plan for sustaining health.
- What other health risks should I be aware of related to GERD? GERD can also increase your chances of developing a narrowing of the esophagus caused by scar tissue from acid exposure. Stomach acid can also severely erode tissues on the esophagus that can cause an ulcer to develop. A bleeding ulcer could make swallowing difficult.
Christine Jeffries is a writer/editor for work and at heart, and lives in a home of testosterone with her husband and two sons. Christine is interested in women’s health and promoting strong women.