The stomach has the vital job of breaking down food before it enters the rest of the GI tract. In order to do this, it uses stomach acid. Acid reflux refers to the backward flow of stomach acid. During acid reflux, sometimes food particles can migrate from the stomach up into the esophagus. This reflux is sometimes referred to as heartburn due to the painful burning sensations that it causes in the center of the rib cage. Usually harmless, heartburn happens to most people from time to time and can be easily managed with minimal medical care. It is especially common to experience after eating spicy foods, fatty foods, or just after a large meal. Obesity and pregnancy can also contribute to acid reflux.
While heartburn is common and not usually harmful, it can become serious and need regular management to prevent permanent damage to the esophagus; this is called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. This disease causes the valve between the stomach and esophagus (known as the lower esophageal sphincter or LES) to become weakened or broken down, which allows the stomach acid to travel backward into the esophagus regularly. The esophagus is not designed to handle this much stomach acid consistently, so over time, GERD can cause permanent changes to the esophagus, specifically the lining, which is a condition known as Barrett’s esophagus. The damage has also been known to increase the risk for cancer of the esophagus substantially.
While heartburn is common and not usually harmful, it can become serious and need regular management to prevent permanent damage to the esophagus; this is called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease. GERD is known to occur regularly, sometimes several times a week. Patients who have heartburn regularly, even as infrequently as several times a month, should see a physician to make sure that their esophagus is healthy and normal. If GERD is suspected, the patient may need to undergo an endoscopy to examine the interior of the esophagus and LES to diagnose any lasting damage that may have been done. In circumstances of average heartburn, a doctor may also recommend treatment options that are more effective than over-the-counter medications that many people use to manage average symptoms.
Mild or infrequent acid reflux can usually be treated with products like Tums or Pepto-Bismol, or a prescription in more severe cases. The products reduce the production of acid within the stomach or neutralize it. If gastroesophageal reflux disease is diagnosed, surgery may be needed to repair any extensive damage done to the lower esophageal sphincter.