“GERD” is a specific form of indigestion caused by a backup, or reflux, of stomach acid into your esophagus. It is usually felt as a burning discomfort in the middle of the chest beneath the breastbone.
Typically, heartburn occurs after meals. Common foods/ingredients such as caffeine, alcohol, peppermint, chocolate, tomato products, garlic, and citrus fruits and juices, can produce these symptoms. Usually the burning-type chest pain lasts for many minutes and is often made worse after lying flat or bending over. Often there is a sensation of food coming back into the mouth, accompanied by a bitter or acid taste. Sometimes a gnawing sensation awakens an individual from sleep. Relief is usually obtained by taking a dose of antacid.
Heartburn is Common
Almost everyone experiences heartburn occasionally. Over 30 percent of all Americans suffer from heartburn at least once a month and approximately 10 percent suffer daily. Although heartburn is common in our society, it is rarely life-threatening. It can, however, limit an individual’s daily activity and sense of well being. For some people, heartburn is so severe that it becomes incapacitating.
Complications of GERD
Heartburn can be a serious problem for some people with GERD. If the delicate lining of the esophagus is exposed to stomach acid for prolonged periods of time, the lining of the esophagus can become inflamed (esophagitis), making it so sensitive that sometimes swallowing is painful. Prompt treatment of esophagitis is necessary to prevent sores (ulcers) from forming in the lining of the esophagus. Left untreated, esophageal ulcers can cause bleeding leading to vomiting of fresh red blood or old “coffee-ground” blood. Sometimes the bleeding goes unnoticed until the passage of black bowel movements.
Continuous inflammation over a long period of time may cause scar tissue to build up in the esophagus, narrowing the opening (stricture) and making it difficult to swallow solid food. This is may require special dilatation to allow normal swallowing function.
When heartburn goes untreated over a long period of time, acid reflux from the stomach can cause cells lining the esophagus to change. The changed lining, called Barrett’s Esophagus, is a precursor condition to cancer of the esophagus. The risk of cancer of the esophagus is increased in people who have Barrett’s. Patients diagnosed with Barrett’s Esophagus need periodic endoscopy with biopsy of the esophagus to survey for development of cancer.