If you enjoy a late-night hamburger or a spicy pizza, you’ve probably
experienced heartburn. You may chalk up the fiery sensation rising from
your stomach into your throat as the price you pay for a favorite meal.
But the burning discomfort is a symptom of acid reflux that, in severe
cases, can develop into gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
“Think of GERD as the nastier cousin of acid reflux,” says
Hyder D. Jamal, MD, a gastroenterologist at
St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton. When the ring of muscle that squeezes the connection shut
between the stomach and the esophagus becomes weakened or damaged, it
can’t close all the way. As a result, the gastric juices that digest
your food work their way up into the esophagus. This is acid reflux.
“GERD is the chronic and more severe manifestation of reflux,”
explains Dr. Jamal, who along with
Daniel Oh, MD, and
Eugene Yoon, MD, offers comprehensive diagnosis and unique treatments at the St. Jude
Center for Thoracic and Esophageal Diseases. “GERD is a consequence
of stomach acid, and sometimes bile, repeatedly rising and coating, then
burning, the sensitive lining of your throat.”
In addition to the burning, GERD can prompt painful nausea or partial
vomiting. But some people with GERD have milder symptoms.
“There’s no way to be sure you have GERD unless you see your
doctor, and there may not be any evidence of tissue damage,” cautions
Dr. Jamal. “The occasional bout of acid reflux is quite common,
and usually responds well to antacids. But GERD may not respond to drugstore
medicine. If heartburn or reflux seems to pop up more than two times a
week, or if over-the-counter remedies don’t relieve your symptoms,
you should see your doctor. GERD isn’t something to be dismissed;
it’s a risk factor for esophageal cancer, one of the deadliest cancers.
Most esophageal cancers arise from damaged lining of the esophagus called
Dr. Jamal says you also need to get checked if your heartburn is getting
worse; if it keeps you up at night; if you choke or have pain when you
swallow; or if it is interfering with your normal routine.
“It’s important that you and your doctor figure out whether
you have acid reflux or GERD before complications have a chance to set
in,” he said.
Keeping GERD under control involves lifestyle changes and sometimes medicine.
Your doctor will work with you to reduce symptoms, heal your esophagus,
and prevent complications.
“Making simple changes to your eating and sleeping habits often helps
alleviate GERD,” says Dr. Jamal. For example, try using extra pillows
to elevate your head and help keep food down while you sleep; and, don’t
eat within two hours of bedtime, so that your stomach will produce less acid.
“GERD has a physical cause so if the lifestyle changes don’t
improve things, you may be given a prescription. There are different kinds
of drugs that can be used to neutralize the acid, strengthen your stomach,
and help clear out acid from your esophagus,” Dr. Jamal says.
Since food triggers GERD, one of the best ways to prevent GERD attacks
is to avoid foods that are causing the problem. Dr. Jamal notes that the
types of food that cause an attack vary from person to person, so there
are no hard and fast rules for a GERD diet.
“For some people, high-fat foods cause an onset of GERD; for others,
acidic foods are the problem. In some cases, carbonated drinks can cause
a flare-up. If an attack occurs each time you eat something in particular,
then stop eating it. You need to track the kinds of food that trigger
your symptoms and start building a GERD-food watch list for yourself.”
Dr. Jamal said St. Jude’s center offers complete care of a patient
with GERD, including endoscopic evaluation, deep tissue imaging, anti-reflux
surgeries and surveillance for esophageal cancer.
“St. Jude is one of the few hospitals in the nation to offer ablative
therapy using the HALO (radiofrequency ablation) system for the treatment
of Barrett’s esophagus, a pre-cancerous condition commonly caused
by GERD,” he said. “This minimally invasive procedure uses
heat to eliminate diseased tissue and leaves healthy tissue undamaged.
If you are suffering from GERD, talk to your physician about getting specialized
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