When Heartburn Is Something More Serious

Health & Medical Blog

After every meal, you take an antacid to stop the heartburn. But lately they are helping less and you have started to have abdominal pains. What felt like a simple case of indigestion is now gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). It's time for a visit to your physician to get a complete workup of your stomach and esophagus and start treatment before you develop more serious health problems. Here is what you need to know about GERD and why it can be a serious threat to your health.

A Tiny Muscle is the Problem

A small muscle surrounds your esophagus where it enters into your stomach. This muscle acts as a valve, opening and closing that part of the esophagus. Its purpose is to let food into the stomach but not let the stomach contents back up into the esophagus.

When this tiny valve fails, stomach acid can enter the esophagus. This irritates the lining of that tube, which is what causes the pain you identify as heartburn. As the acid continues to irritate the esophagus, ulcers and bleeding can occur. The acid may come up into your mouth and throat. You'll have a metallic taste in your mouth and the tissues there and in your throat can become damaged. Antacids will do little to reduce the pain.

Eventually, GERD can cause the formation of cancerous cells in the esophagus and tumors can develop where the esophagus attaches to the stomach. You'll have difficulty swallowing and lying down becomes impossible without pain.

Diagnosing GERD

Your doctor will do X-rays and blood tests to verify the disease. They may do an endoscopy to look into the esophagus directly. They will look for damaged tissue and signs of cancerous cell formation. During this exam, they can take tissue samples to determine how far the cancer cells have progressed. Once your doctor understands the extent of your GERD, they will offer various treatment options.

Treating GERD

Treatment will initially focus on your pain and the irritation of the esophagus. Easing the passage of stomach acid into the esophagus may allow the tiny valve to heal on its own. Should the valve be irreversibly damaged, surgery will have to be done to stop the problem.

Changes in your diet - Your doctor will recommend avoiding foods high in acid that further irritate your esophagus. Coffee and citrus fruits will continue to damage the already irritated tissue. Cutting back on foods with a high fat content reduces the amount of acid that your stomach produces.

Changes in your lifestyle - Your doctor will also make several suggestions for changes in your daily routine to reduce the pain and tissue irritation, such as

  • limiting alcohol consumption
  • stopping smoking
  • eating smaller portions at mealtime
  • eating several hours before going to bed
  • raising the head of your bed when sleeping

Medication management - Your doctor may offer prescription medication to reduce the production of stomach acid and neutralize any acid that backs up into the esophagus.

Surgical repair of the valve - If the muscular valve is permanently damaged, surgery can be done to allow it to again close off the esophagus from the stomach.

Treatment when cancer cells appear- A portion of the esophagus may need to be removed to prevent the spread of cancer cells developing there. If there is a fear that the cells have already spread, chemotherapy may be required to find and destroy those cancer cells.


30 November 2015

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