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Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, or GERD, occurs at the lower esophageal sphincter, which separates the esophagus from the stomach. When the lower esophageal sphincter allows acid to flow backwards into the esophagus, gastroesophageal reflux occurs. If this occurs frequently, as in more than a few times per week, the condition is known as GERD.
Over time, the irritated esophagus can erode causing bleeding or breathing problems and if left untreated, esophageal cancer may result. Many factors contribute to GERD, including acidic, spicy, or fatty foods, alcohol, even obesity and pregnancy. Also, some studies show that smoking cigarettes can relax the lower esophageal sphincter as well. Heartburn is the most common symptom of GERD. Nearly 25 million Americans suffer from daily heartburn, which is a painful, burning feeling beginning in the chest and rising up towards the neck and throat. Heartburn can in fact be so painful to some people that they mistake it for having a heart attack. Heartburn often worsens after eating (especially acidic, spicy, or fatty foods) or lying down.
Other symptoms of GERD are, difficulty swallowing, regurgitation of food or sour liquid, dry cough, or feeling like there is a lump in your throat. Doctors usually recommend lifestyle changes such as not eating within a few hours of going to bed, avoiding foods like chocolate, peppermint, fatty foods, alcohol, coffee, or acidic foods and beverages, and decreasing portion sizes. Also, overweight people may find relief after losing weight and quitting smoking reduces symptoms. Over-the-counter medications such as Tums and Prilosec also relieve symptoms of GERD. However, continuous use of antacids like Tums can cause other side effects like diarrhea, increased instances of food poisoning, and a buildup of magnesium in the body, which is not good for patients with kidney disease.
For chronic conditions, doctors may prescribe an H2 blocker, which blocks acid secretions into the stomach, or a proton pump inhibitor, which inhibits an enzyme that is necessary in producing acid. These medications simply reduce or block further acid production. If these medications fail to successfully treat or if long-term medication use is trying to be avoided, surgery may be necessary to reinforce the esophagus or create a barrier to prevent a backup of stomach acid. In most cases, GERD can be relieved by simple lifestyle changes or an over-the-counter medication. However, these treatments are important and should not be put off. Letting these symptoms of GERD go without treatment could worsen and lead to precancerous changes in the tissue of the esophagus and could end up leading to cancer of the esophagus.
“GERD.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 21 May 2011. Web. 24 Mar. 2012. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/gerd/DS00967. “Heartburn/GERD Health Center.” What Is GERD? Pain, Symptoms, Causes, Remedies, and More. WebMD, 29 June 2011. Web. 24 Mar. 2012. http://www.webmd.com/heartburn-gerd/guide/reflux-disease-gerd-1