Acid reflux disease, also called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), is a condition in which stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, the tube that connects to the upper stomach, and causes painful heartburn and damage to the esophageal tissues. Acid reflux into the esophagus is a problem because the stomach lining protects the stomach against self-digestion by the stomach acid; however, the esophagus lacks such a protective lining and is therefore vulnerable to ulceration and scar tissue formation with chronic acid reflux. If GERD goes untreated over time, it can also slightly increase the risk of developing esophageal cancer due to persistent damage and repair to the lining of the lower esophagus. Some people experience occasional heartburn or the feeling of acid reflux, but this does not necessarily qualify for a diagnosis of GERD. In order for it to be considered gastroesophageal reflux disease, the symptoms have to be severe or happen frequently, at least twice every week.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease is caused by stomach acid being able to get through the sphincter muscle that lies between the bottom of the esophagus and the top of the stomach. In some cases, the sphincter may not close fully on a regular basis, making a person more prone to the reflux of stomach acid and the development of GERD. Some factors that increase the risk of a person developing acid reflux disease include diabetes, stomach emptying problems, obesity, pregnancy, asthma and connective tissue disorders.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease may initially be treated with over-the-counter medications to control acid reflux into the esophagus. Simply using antacid tablets does not work for chronic acid reflux; it is temporary relief that does not address the underlying problem. Antacids reduce heartburn, but if the person has inflammation in their esophagus due to GERD, other medications may be necessary. Medications called proton pump inhibitors and H-2 receptor blockers control acid production. These types of medications are available both over-the-counter and in a prescription-strength form. If medications are not effective for treatment of GERD, sometimes surgery to reinforce the lower esophageal sphincter muscle is a treatment option. Certain lifestyle changes can also have an effect on GERD. Making sure not to lie down after a meal and avoiding heartburn trigger foods can help. Foods that are said to make heartburn worse include coffee, fried foods, tomato products and alcohol.