Acid Reflux & GERD: Gut Check

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By David C. Gochnour II, MD

The occasional indulgence of chili cheese fries can cause the temporary discomfort of heartburn, but for one in five Americans that burning sensation is the sign of something more.

Football season is upon us, and who doesn’t love a good tailgate party? For those who suffer from heartburn, the typical fare at most tailgate parties can be a recipe for discomfort. But how do you know whether your heartburn is something that comes with the territory, or is something more serious?

You know the occasional indulgence of chili cheese fries can come with the temporary discomfort of heartburn. But for one in five Americans, that burning sensation is the sign of acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Heartburn, acid reflux and GERD all stem from the same underlying problem — muscles in the stomach, esophagus and diaphragm relax, allowing acid from the stomach to flow backward up the esophagus. This can happen when the muscles relax at the wrong time or are weak. The telltale burning sensation occurs because unlike the stomach, the esophagus is not protected from the acid by a mucous lining. Other symptoms of acid reflux may include persistent sore throat, hoarseness, chronic cough, asthma, chest pain and a feeling of a lump in the throat. Many people may even experience these symptoms without the classic heartburn discomfort.

What separates the three conditions is the severity and frequency of the reflux and, in the case of GERD, possible tissue damage in the esophagus due to long-term exposure to refluxed contents. For chronic sufferers, this can lead to trouble swallowing, esophageal bleeding or ulcers, and even an increased risk of developing cancer in the esophagus.

Assessing the Acid

So what’s treatable with a few chewable tablets and what’s worth more attention? There are several straightforward markers that separate normal heartburn from serious acid reflux and GERD. Think of the following questions as your own acid assessment:

  • Do you experience heartburn more than twice a week?
  • Does your nighttime heartburn ever wake you from sleep?
  • Have you experienced trouble or pain swallowing?
  • Have you noticed your heartburn increasing or worsening over several years?
  • Do you have a chronic cough, hoarseness or persistent sore throat?

Chronic heartburn and one or more of the above signs are the most common indicators of a reflux condition. It is important to talk with your doctor if you experience persistent heart burn. There are a variety of ways your doctor may be able to help you, including medical therapy, endoscopic therapy and minimally invasive surgical options that can help reinforce and strengthen the muscles responsible for controlling reflux.

Tips to Reduce Reflux and Heartburn

To reduce reflux and heartburn, try some of these tips and see which ones work for you:

  • Don’t lie down right after you eat.
  • Elevate the head of your bed four to six inches.
  • Lose weight if you are overweight.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals rather than large meals.
  • Avoid consuming chocolate, coffee, alcohol, fried food, fatty foods, peppermint, carbonated beverages, citrus fruits or juices, tomato sauce, ketchup, mustard, vinegar, aspirin and most pain medicines (other than acetaminophen).

If you are still experiencing persistent heartburn, even after changes to your diet and lifestyle, it may be time to discuss other options with your doctor.

David C. Gochnour II, M.D., in is practice with College Station Surgical Associates.