If you’re like most, your busy schedule has you constantly on the go. You run from work to pick up the kids from school; then you take them to ballgames or ballet class. You don’t get home until late, and tomorrow you do it all again. Most nights, you’re running from one activity to another, and all that running around leaves you very little time to prepare healthy meals, and you end up grabbing whatever you can between the chaos. But all the eating on the go can bring on that red-hot pain in your chest that most of us call heartburn, but GI doctors call ‘acid reflux.’ And the busier your schedule, the more acid reflux you get, until it becomes a routine part of life. If you find yourself getting the symptoms of acid reflux more than once a week, it may be time to see a gastroenterologist, or GI doctor.
What is acid reflux?
Gastroenterology is the branch of medicine that deals with the study of disorders affecting the stomach, intestines, and all the organs associated with these. According to GI doctors, acid reflux, or ‘gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), is a chronic digestive disease that occurs when stomach acid or, occasionally, bile flows back (refluxes) into your esophagus. That acid backwash begins to irritate the lining of your esophagus, and that’s what causes GERD. Although you may find the pain that goes along with GERD to be merely a nuisance now, what you may not realize is that the chronic pain you’re feeling could be causing other complications, including open sores and precancerous conditions within your esophagus. When you swallow, the lower part of your esophagus, or ‘lower esophageal sphincter,’ or opens to allow liquids and foods you consume to flow down into your stomach. After this happens, it closes again. If this begins to weaken, its ability to open can be compromised, allowing stomach acid to flow back up into the esophagus, causing heartburn. This can cause a continuous backwash of acid that irritates the esophageal lining, and that can lead to ‘esophagitis,’ which is inflammation of the esophagus. Over time, this inflammation can cause esophageal erosion, a very serious medical condition that can produce complications such as bleeding or even breathing problems.
What are the warning signs?
GERD brings with it many symptoms that can warn you there’s something wrong. The three most common are heartburn, indigestion, and regurgitation.
The burning sensation you get in your chest that sometimes even spreads to your throat, leaving a sour taste in your mouth. Most people can manage heartburn with over-the-counter medications and/or lifestyle adjustments, including making changes to diet. If, however, you find you’re getting heartburn more than once a week that begins to interfere with your life and medications aren’t helping much anymore, you probably need to see a GI doctor.
GI doctors call it ‘dyspepsia.’ This is uncomfortable digestion that can be accompanied by upper abdominal pain, bloating, stomach pain, and even nausea or vomiting. If you are experiencing indigestion more once a week, you should see a GI doctor.
GERD sometimes brings with it a feeling of acid backing up into the throat, which is often referred to as wet burp. This can cause vomiting, chest pain, chronic hiccups, dry cough, and throat discomfort such as hoarseness or the feeling of a lump in the throat. Chronic regurgitation can cause sore throats and swallowing difficulties that make it hard to eat
What are the causes?
There are many conditions or behaviors that can lead to GERD, including obesity; overeating; consumption of such triggers as caffeine, spicy or citrusy foods, garlic, alcohol, and carbonated beverages; delayed stomach emptying; smoking; pregnancy; hiatal hernia; dry mouth; diabetes; and even asthma.
What are the complications?
Chronic inflammation of the esophagus can lead to serious complications if not attended to by a GI doctor. These serious health problems can include esophageal narrowing that causes scar tissue and difficulty swallowing, open sores in the esophagus that cause pain, bleeding, difficulty swallowing, and conditions such as ‘Barrett’s esophagus,’ which involves precancerous changes occurring in the esophagus that can lead to cancer.
If you experience any of the symptoms of GERD more than once a week, you should seek medical attention from a GI doctor for treatment. If you find that you are taking over-the-counter medications for heartburn more than once a week, you should make an appointment with a GI doctor. If you ignore the warning signs of GERD, you run the risk of developing esophageal cancer. A colonoscopy, which is a colon cancer screening, may be necessary to diagnosis GERD that does not go away. The Centers for Disease Control recommends colon cancer screenings for everyone over the age of 50. According to gastroenterologists, roughly 30 percent of esophageal cancers are connected to GERD.
What are the treatments?
The treatment for GERD typically starts with prevention of symptoms by avoiding foods that trigger reflux and the discomforts that come with it. Prescription medications are often included in the treatment of acid reflux disease, and sometimes these two methods are enough to prevent your GERD symptoms from returning. However, if symptoms do not subside with lifestyle changes and prescription medications, surgery may be necessary. In this case, a GI doctor may recommend an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy, which is a procedure that allows gastro doctors to look at the interior lining of your stomach, esophagus, and duodenum (the first part of your small intestine). This procedure helps doctors diagnose problems occurring in the GI tract, such as inflammation or narrowing of the esophagus, ulcers, hiatal hernia, or cancer.
Always seek immediate medical attention if you experience chest pain, especially if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as arm or jaw pain or difficulty breathing, as you may be having a heart attack. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of acid reflux, you should make an appointment with a qualified GI doctor in your area.