GERD (also called acid reflux) is a term you’ve probably heard on pharmaceutical commercials. It’s an acronym for gastroesophageal reflux disease. While that’s quite a mouthful to say, GERD is a very common medical problem that people face. In fact, GERD affects about 20 percent of the U.S. population. Although it’s common, gastroesophageal reflux disease isn’t something you should try to diagnose on your own.

When a person suffers from GERD stomach acid or bile flows back into the esophagus and burns its lining. The GERD sufferer doesn’t experience this occasionally. Instead, they will suffer from acid reflux a minimum of two times per week.

What are the symptoms of GERD?

GERD is characterized by heartburn, having a hard time swallowing, chest pain, and regurgitation of food. When a person suffers from these symptoms through the night they tend to have a persistent cough, inflammation of the throat, asthma, and poor sleep.

What causes GERD?

GERD is the result of a weak esophageal sphincter. This sphincter tightens when you aren’t eating and loosens when food needs to be transported to your esophagus. When it malfunctions, the band is loose even when it shouldn’t be, which results in a reflux of stomach acid and bile. Over time, the consistent reflux causes your throat to become raw and irritated.

A person is more likely to develop GERD if they have certain risk factors. Pregnant women tend to be at risk because of the excess weight around their belly. Additionally, those who suffer from obesity and a hiatal hernia tend to experience GERD.

There are also certain foods and drinks that can exacerbate the issue, such as coffee and alcohol, as well as fried foods.

What are the long-term effects of GERD?

There are several serious long-term problems. An esophageal stricture, also known as a narrowing of the esophagus, occurs because of scar tissue building up in the esophagus. As scar tissue builds up the esophagus becomes more and more narrow and makes swallowing difficult.

Another common issue is the development of esophageal ulcers. This is the formation of an open sore in the esophagus that’s caused by acid continually causing damage to the cells. These are both painful, make swallowing hard, and can bleed.

Finally, over time, a person can develop what’s called Barrett’s esophagus. This is the development of precancerous cells that are the result of damage caused by stomach acid.

How is GERD treated?

If lifestyle modifications like elevating your head when sleeping, losing weight, and eliminating acidic foods from your diet don’t help with GERD, it might be necessary to try a medication. However, for many people medications are only a short-term solution.

For some, surgery might be necessary to fix the lower esophageal sphincter. This is a surgery Dr. McKenna specializes in and has used to help many patients regain their quality of life. Contact us to learn more about this surgery and whether you might be a candidate for it.

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About the Authors

Dr. Robert McKenna

Robert McKenna, M.D., is the Professor of Surgery, and Director of the Minimally Invasive Chest Surgery and Thoracic Surgical Oncology Center at the Saint John’s Cancer Institute. Dr. Robert McKenna is an internationally renowned thoracic surgeon, who has dedicated over 2 decades in General Thoracic surgery research and clinical care. Learn More About Dr. Robert McKenna.

Osita, M.D., MBA Onugha,

Osita Onugha, M.D., MBA, is the Assistant Professor of Minimally Invasive Chest Surgery and Thoracic Surgical Oncology at the Saint John’s Cancer Institute. Dr. Onugha is a board-certified surgeon and assistant professor of thoracic surgery at the Saint John’s Cancer Institute. Dr. Onugha practices all aspects of thoracic surgery, including procedures for benign and malignant conditions of the lung, esophagus and mediastinum. Learn More About Dr. Osita Onugha.