What is acid reflux?
Acid reflux (GERD, heartburn) is when acid from your stomach ends up flowing back up into your esophagus. The most common symptoms include problems swallowing, chest pain, feeling of a lump in your throat, regurgitating food or liquids, and vomiting.
Acid reflux is a condition where acid from your stomach ends up flowing back up into your esophagus, the tube that connects the stomach and throat. Many people experience an occasional bout of acid reflux. Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is a disorder where people experience some form of acid reflux at least once or twice per week.
GERD can develop in people of all ages. The following factors and conditions can also increase your chances of experiencing some form of acid reflux, including GERD:
- Those who may be carrying extra weight
- Pregnant women
- People who smoke regularly or people frequently exposed to second-hand smoke
- People taking medications that cause acid reflux as a side effect
- Individuals with a connective tissue disorder
- People who experience delays in emptying their stomach
Signs and symptoms of acid reflux
Heartburn is one of the most common symptoms of acid reflux. People with heartburn feel a burning sensation inside their chest. Heartburn often occurs after consuming a meal. The feeling of heartburn can get more intense during the night.
The location of heartburn discomfort can cause some people to believe they might be having a heart attack. If symptoms of heartburn fail to clear up after taking medication, you should seek immediate medical attention.
Ten common symptoms that people with GERD or other forms of acid reflux experience include:
- Problems swallowing
- Pain in the chest
- The feeling of a lump in your throat
- Regurgitating food or sour liquids
- Sore throat
- Hoarseness or an inability to speak
- Chronic coughing
- Sleep disruption
- The onset of or worsening of asthma
Causes of acid reflux
When food enters the stomach, there is a valve at the end of the esophagus that should close upon its arrival. If that valve malfunctions, it allows acid to flow back up into your mouth and throat. That’s what causes the sour taste in your mouth when you experience acid reflux.
Some factors that could lead to the problems with the valve closing properly include:
- Having too much pressure placed on the abdomen
- Eating specific types of food (spicy, dairy, etc.)
- Your general eating habits
- A hiatal hernia, where the upper part of your stomach bulges into your diaphragm
GERD is the back up of stomach acid into the esophagus.
When to see the doctor about acid reflux
You should see a doctor about your acid reflux if it gets to a point where it’s causing persistent discomfort in your daily life. The condition is not life-threatening, but you can end up with some serious complications.
GERD can lead to chronic inflammation in your esophagus. You could end up with the following conditions if you don’t receive proper and timely treatment:
- Esophageal stricture — An esophageal stricture forms when your lower esophagus ends up with damage from stomach acids, leading to scar tissue formation. The presence of that scar tissue causes your food pathway to narrow, which causes you to have trouble swallowing your food.
- Esophageal ulcer — An esophageal ulcer is a sore that develops when your stomach acid wears away the issue of your esophagus. It can start bleeding, which can cause pain and leads to problems with swallowing.
- Barrett’s esophagus — The damage caused in your lower esophagus tissue by stomach acid can induce changes that increase your risk of developing esophageal cancer.
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Diagnosis and tests for acid reflux
Doctors typically start by asking questions about your medical history and how long you’ve been experiencing symptoms of acid reflux. They usually move on to performing a physical exam. Your physician may also recommend other tests to determine whether you have GERD or another kind of acid reflux, like:
- Endoscopy — A thin, flexible tube gets inserted down your throat. The end contains a light and a camera, which allows a doctor to view the inside of the stomach and esophagus.
- Ambulatory acid (pH) probe test — Your doctor places a monitor into your esophagus to observe when your stomach acid regurgitates, and for how long. The monitor feeds information to a small computer worn around your waist or held up by your shoulder with a strap. It typically passes out of your body through stool after a few days.
- Digestive system x-ray — After drinking a special liquid that coats your digestive tract, your doctor takes x-rays that lets doctors see the outline of your stomach, esophagus, and lower intestine. Your physician may also ask you to take a barium pill that helps diagnose whether you have an esophageal stricture.
Treatments for acid reflux
Your doctor may recommend treating milder forms of acid reflux through a combination of lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications. If you are diagnosed with GERD, the doctor may write you a prescription to help with the symptoms.
If lifestyle changes and medication fail to provide relief, a physician might recommend that you have surgery for acid reflux. Available surgical options for treating the condition include:
- Fundoplication – A minimally invasive procedure that involves wrapping the area around your lower esophageal sphincter to tighten that muscle, preventing reflux.
- LINX device – Your surgeon wraps a ring of small magnetic beads around the place where your stomach and esophagus meet. The magnetized beads' strength keeps that juncture closed but still allows food to pass to your stomach.