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Learning How to Manage Acid Reflux

dr-sperlBy Dr. Brian Sperl

Have you ever experienced a burning pain in the middle of your chest that extends to your stomach? That is actually a symptom of one of the most common GI disorders - gastroesophageal reflux disease, most commonly known as acid reflux disease or GERD.

Acid reflux can cause both short-lived and long-term discomfort to those with the problem. Thankfully, there are a variety of methods to alleviate acid reflux with most as simple as making a few lifestyle changes. For more serious cases, a simple medical treatment plan or a minor procedure can resolve the problem.

What Is Acid Reflux?

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Acid reflux occurs when the muscle at the top of the stomach is weak or relaxes inappropriately allowing acidic stomach fluid to come back up the esophagus. One of the major factors causing acid reflux is weight gain.

Occasionally, the acid reflux may reach the larynx causing hoarseness, bronchitis, or asthma. Common symptoms include heartburn, a burning sensation under the breastbone, as well as a painful or difficult feeling when swallowing.

What Causes Acid Reflux?

There are many triggers for acid reflux symptoms, including eating late at night, consuming fatty foods, caffeine, alcohol, tomato sauces, chocolate or even eating peppermint.  Sometimes even lying down or bending over too soon after eating also may initiate reflux.

How to Avoid Acid Reflux

Sufferers can minimize acid reflux by eating smaller meals and by waiting three to four hours after eating before going to bed.

Altering one’s sleep position may also help the issue. Research has shown that some patients notice an improvement by elevating the head of the bed with risers or by sleeping on a foam wedge. Another factor that will help is weight loss. Sometimes a loss of only five to ten pounds can greatly reduce acid reflux symptoms.

Typically, these simple measures and suggested lifestyle changes are sufficient in preventing acid reflux. However, if these changes do not seem to improve one’s symptoms, antacids are recommended.

Pharmaceutical Remedies

Antacids help to neutralize stomach acids and relieve heartburn. However, if antacids do not seem to ease a patient’s acid reflux issues, he or she may benefit from a more powerful class of medicines. H2 receptor blockers and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) have demonstrated great effect in patients with recurrent and severe acid reflux.

Treating Severe Acid Reflux Symptoms

For patients whose heartburn symptoms are severe and chronic, doctors prefer giving them a medical test called an upper endoscopy (EGD) to check on the extent of the problem.

An EGD lasts only about ten to fifteen minutes and is essential to evaluate the affected area.  During this test, a small flexible scope is passed through the mouth into the stomach to allow direct visualization of the esophagus, stomach and upper small bowel to diagnose and to help treat the damage that can occur as a result of acid reflux.

The risks of this procedure are minimal. A very small percentage of patients suffer bleeding or perforations of the esophagus or stomach but these side effects are extremely rare.

Barrett’s Esophagus

During the EGD, the physician will also look for signs of a condition called Barrett’s esophagus - this is when the cells lining the esophagus change in response to prolonged and untreated acid reflux. While for most patients with Barrett’s, the tissue never develops anything serious, there are cases of some patients developing esophageal cancer.

What if Acid Reflux Disease Goes Untreated?

If not treated properly, acid reflux disease can cause different types of injury to the esophagus including inflammation, irritation, ulcers or erosions. Physicians frequently find an esophageal stricture, which is a scar that narrows the esophagus and makes swallowing progressively more difficult.

Gastroesophageal reflux is an extremely common condition that can be effectively controlled and prevented.

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