Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic condition in which the stomach's contents sometimes flow back up into the esophagus — the tube that carries food from your throat into your stomach.
A ring of muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) normally keeps the top of your stomach closed. It relaxes and opens when you're swallowing. GERD happens when the LES relaxes and opens up when you aren't swallowing. This allows your stomach contents to flow back up the esophagus.
Other terms are also used to describe GERD, including:
- Acid indigestion
- Acid reflux
- Acid regurgitation
GERD can cause discomfort, digestive problems and more serious concerns if left untreated.
What are the causes and risk factors of GERD?
There are many risk factors associated with GERD, including:
- Being overweight
- Consuming alcoholic, caffeinated, or carbonated beverages
- Eating certain foods, such as chocolate, citrus fruits, onions, peppermint, tomato, or spicy or fried foods
- Eating large meals
- Eating soon before going to bed
- Lying flat after eating
- Having a hiatal hernia
- Taking certain medicines, including aspirin and certain drugs for asthma, high blood pressure, allergies, depression, sleep disorders, and pain
- Being pregnant
Complications of Untreated GERD
While GERD isn’t a life-threatening condition, if left untreated it can result in complications including:
Esophageal Stricture: This is a narrowing of the esophagus that happens when damage from stomach acid causes a buildup of scar tissue. It can cause problems with swallowing.
Esophageal Ulcer: This is an open sore in the esophagus, caused by tissue damage from stomach acid. It can lead to pain, bleeding, and problems with swallowing.
Barrett’s Esophagus: This is a precancerous condition in which the cells lining the esophagus change. Barrett's esophagus is associated with an increased risk of developing esophageal cancer. Although the risk is small, if you have GERD it’s important to have regular checkups for precancerous cells (dysplasia). If precancerous cells are discovered, they can be treated to prevent esophageal cancer.
Esophageal Cancer: Esophageal cancer can result from years of untreated GERD. It is more common among men than among women and is often diagnosed when it is in an advanced stage. In later stages, esophageal cancer can be treated, but rarely can be cured.
Advanced Treatment Options for GERD
Once you have been diagnosed with GERD, your gastroenterologist may initially recommend lifestyle modifications (diet, exercise, losing weight, quitting smoking, etc.) and over-the-counter medication. If your symptoms persist after a few weeks of following your treatment plan, prescription medication or surgery may be necessary.
Antacids (Tums, Alka-Seltzer, Gaviscon, etc.) – Often the first recommendation, these medications naturally work to relieve heartburn and diminish some of the symptoms common with GERD
H2 Blockers (such as Pepcid, Tagamet, Zantac) - Typically used to relieve heartburn in the evening
Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs – Prilosec, Prevacid, Protonix, etc.) - The strongest medication for reducing stomach acids
LINX® Reflux Management System – Cooper University Health Care recently became the first health system in South Jersey to implant the LINX device, a small, flexible band of titanium, magnetic beads that wraps around the base of the lower esophageal sphincter muscle to keep it closed tightly after drinking or eating.
Fundoplication - Cooper surgeons are among the most experienced at this procedure, in which the top of the stomach is wrapped around the lower esophagus. This provides support for the lower esophageal sphincter muscle, allowing it to close tightly and prevent stomach acid from backwashing into the esophagus.
For an appointment with one of our experts in treating gastroesophageal reflux disease, please call 800.8.COOPER (800.826.6737).