Acid reflux is that burning feeling in your chest or throat that sometimes happens after you eat. It’s a common complaint. But is it dangerous?

For most people, occasional acid reflux – more generally known as heartburn – is easily managed with medication and diet and lifestyle changes. But if you feel that burning feeling in your chest more than twice a week, your acid reflux has progressed to Gastrointestinal Esophageal Reflux Disease, or GERD.

What Causes GERD?

You probably know what acid reflux feels like. What’s happening is a lot like a sump pump’s backwater valve that prevents outbound water from getting back into a basement. With GERD, your lower esophageal sphincter is the valve (actually, a circular bunch of muscles) that doesn’t work properly – either weakened or opening at the wrong time. This allows stomach acid to flow back into your esophagus.

Controlling GERD becomes more manageable once you and your doctor have identified what has weakened your lower esophageal sphincter.

Here are some possibilities. Let’s start with increased pressure on the abdomen:

  • Overweight or obese
  • Pregnancy
  • Hiatal hernia (when part of the stomach extends through the diaphragm muscle and into the chest cavity)

Certain food and drinks can also trigger GERD. Keeping track of what you have eaten or drank before an episode of acid reflux can help you manage GERD.

  • Chocolate
  • Fried foods
  • Citrus fruits
  • Coffee
  • Alcohol
  • Carbonated drinks

These medications can also contribute to GERD:

  • Antihistamines
  • Alpha blockers
  • Painkillers (anti-inflammatories)
  • Sedatives
  • Antidepressants
  • Asthma medications
  • Smoking, even regular exposure to secondhand smoke, also has been linked to GERD

GERD isn’t an adult phenomenon, either. Symptoms often show up in newborns between weeks 2 and 4. An estimated two-thirds of 4-month-old babies experience GERD symptoms like spit-up or vomit. Overfeeding, a weak or underdeveloped lower esophageal sphincter, weak abdominal muscles or a sluggish digestive system are likely causes. Lying down after feeding doesn’t help, either.

This is What GERD Can Feel Like (It’s Not Just Heartburn)

GERD often announces itself with regular bouts of heartburn and acid indigestion. Other symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Regurgitation of sour liquid or food
  • Belching
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Asthma
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • A feeling of a lump in the throat
  • Chronic cough
  • Pneumonia
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bad breath
  • Tooth erosion
  • Irregular sleep
  • Laryngitis

Complications of GERD

More serious cases of GERD, untreated, can cause:

Esophagitis: An inflammation of the esophagus

Esophageal Stricture: A narrowing or tightening of the esophagus that causes swallowing problems

Barrett’s Esophagus: Normal tissue that lines the esophagus changes permanently to something that looks more like the lining of the intestine

Esophageal Cancer : A potential byproduct of Barrett’s esophagus

Surgical Interventions

Hiatal Hernia Repair: A hiatal hernia is the abnormal migration of the stomach from the abdomen to the thorax through the diaphragm muscle. Occasionally a hiatal hernia can lead to GERD and/or to difficulty swallowing. This is repaired minimally invasively (laparoscopically or robotically) under general anesthesia where the stomach is returned to its normal location in the abdomen bellow the diaphragm muscle and restoring the normal anatomy. This can be done in conjunction with a surgical procedure for Reflux Disease.

Fundoplication: This is minimally invasive surgical procedure to prevent acid reflux. Under general anesthesia, the upper part of the stomach is loosely wrapped around the lower esophagus to prevent heartburn and restore the function of the lower esophageal junction.  

Linx Device Placement: An implantable device made of small titanium magnets connected by a wire in a bracelet configuration is placed around the lower part of the esophagus. The magnetic attraction of the titanium beads prevents abnormal reflux by augmenting the strength of the lower esophageal sphincter. This procedure is also called magnetic sphincter augmentation. 

How can acid reflux cause cancer of the esophagus?

“Over many years,” says Dr. David Chaletsky, a Digestive Health Center gastroenterologist, “that acid changes the lining of the esophagus, and that potentially turns it into cancer. But you have to understand that there are other atypical symptoms that people could have. One would be chronic cough, voice changes, even chest pain, and also people who have trouble with swallowing occasionally.”

How You Can Avoid Esophageal Cancer

Swallowing And Reflux Program

Are you like one in five Americans who have trouble swallowing or suffer from Acid Reflux? Click below to see how Hartford HealthCare is prepared to help you.

Meet our Gastrointestinal Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) Specialists:

Name Specialties Location
Daoud, Vladimir Paul, MD Daoud, Vladimir Paul, MD 860.246.2071
  • General Surgery
  • Hartford
  • Bloomfield
  • Manchester
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