Your Heartburn Might Be More Than a Stomach Ache

If you are constantly plagued by heartburn, it might be more than a simple stomach ache. You might be suffering from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), one of the most common digestive disorders in the United States.

GERD is a chronic condition caused by the backflow of stomach contents, such as gastric acid, into the esophagus.

“GERD affects more than 40 percent of all Americans,” says surgeon Leena Khaitan, MD, MPH. “The number of people diagnosed with GERD is rising because of increased obesity rates, poor eating habits and the public’s awareness of this condition.”

Seeking medical care for persistent GERD symptoms is important, Dr. Khaitan says.

“When left untreated, GERD could lead to serious complications like narrowing of the opening of the esophagus, Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer,” she says.

GERD Symptoms

People who have GERD, Dr. Khaitan says, have these symptoms:

Usual symptoms:

  • Heartburn or tightening in the chest
  • Regurgitation, or the sensation of food or liquid rising up the esophagus
  • Bitter or sour taste in the mouth

Less common symptoms:

  • Burning pain in throat, or a persistent sore throat
  • Hoarseness
  • Chronic dry cough, especially at night
  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • Asthma
  • Unexpected chest pain
  • Bad breath
  • Feeling that there is a lump in the throat
  • Uncomfortable sense of fullness after meals

GERD Causes

Obesity has a strong link to GERD. Other factors that Dr. Khaitan says can cause GERD include a hiatal hernia, smoking and consuming trigger foods, such as:

  • Alcohol
  • Carbonated beverages
  • Chocolate
  • Citrus fruits
  • Coffee or tea – regular or decaf
  • Fatty or fried foods
  • Foods containing tomato, such as tomato sauce, pizza or salsa
  • Garlic and onions
  • Peppermint
  • Spicy foods

“The good news is that GERD symptoms may be reduced by making simple lifestyle changes,” she says. Other strategies:

  • Stay away from trigger foods
  • Maintain a normal weight
  • Avoid tight clothing that puts pressure on the abdomen
  • Sleeping with your head and shoulders propped up with a wedge pillow
  • Have dinner at least three hours before bedtime
  • Eat small meals throughout the day instead of large ones

If you have reduced your trips to Starbucks, skipped food truck chili and forgone your daily chocolate fix but GERD is still a problem, then it’s time to see a medical professional.

GERD Treatment

After a thorough evaluation, a gastroenterologist or your primary care physician may decide to prescribe a medication that neutralizes stomach acid or stronger medications called proton pump inhibitors, which block acid production.

“Taking GERD medications a half-hour before eating is very important to get maximum benefit,” Dr. Khaitan. “These medications work best on an empty stomach, so timing of medications is very important.”

For persistent GERD that cannot be helped by lifestyle changes or monitored medications, Dr. Khaitan says new medical procedures can bring GERD sufferers relief, like the LINX Reflux Management System.

The LINX Reflux Management System

University Hospitals Digestive Health Institute’s Esophageal & Swallowing Center offers the LINX Reflux Management System for patients whose weakened lower esophageal sphincter allows acid and bile to flow back from the stomach into the esophagus.

This device, a small flexible band of interlinked titanium beads with magnetic cores, is implanted during minimally invasive surgery and offers patients immediate relief from reflux by strengthening the lower esophageal sphincter, Dr. Khaitan says.

“The procedure has fewer side effects compared to other GERD surgeries, and the outcomes have been outstanding," she says. "We even offer some less invasive procedures for reflux as well that can be done without any incisions. The team can talk to you about your options.”

Leena Khaitan, MD, MPH, is a general and bariatric surgeon and director of University Hospitals Digestive Health Institute’s Esophageal & Swallowing Center at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Khaitan or any other University Hospitals doctor online.

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