GERD: Common causes, symptoms and best ways to stop the burn

Almost everyone has some form of indigestion or heartburn from time to time. But when it happens repeatedly, it's known as acid reflux, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

In this week's Moves in Medicine, we look at the common causes of GERD, and the best ways to stop that burn.

Food has been a favorite outlet for the stress of the pandemic except for those with GERD. The issue occurs when acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus or food pipe.

"This acid or bile creates irritation of the lining of the esophagus and usually translates into symptoms of heartburn or pain," said Dr. Eric Velazquez, a surgeon at Temple Health Jeanes Campus.

Dr. Velazquez says pregnancy and obesity raise the chance of GERD by increasing pressure on the stomach.

Medications that increase stomach acids also can increase it. A weakened muscle at the base of the esophagus is another cause. So is a hiatal hernia, an enlarged opening in the diaphragm that the esophagus passes through.

"We can treat that with surgery," he said.

For most other cases of GERD, the first treatment option is modifying the diet and drinks.

"Foods that are spicy or greasy, or drinks that are carbonated tend to make the reflux worse," Dr. Velazquez said.

When that doesn't work, it's time to cut out smoking or drinking alcohol, then it's time to add medications.

"Antacids or another line of medications called proton pump inhibitors ... the most famous one is Nexium," Dr. Velazquez said.

Although GERD is common, people shouldn't wait to get treatment. Chronic acid in the esophagus can lead to scarring that will narrow the food pipe.

"So those patients will end up with problems of not being able to swallow food," he said.

Or they could end up with Barrett's esophagus, changes in cells lining the food pipe.

"This is a precursor of cancer," he said.

There are other procedures, even devices for reflux. The key is to get help, so you can enjoy eating again.
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