What is GERD?

heartburn pain

GERD is a much shorter term for Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease. This is a chronic condition defined by a weakness of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the ring of muscle that separates the  esophagus from the stomach. In normal digestion, this muscle relaxes to allow food to move from the esophagus to the stomach, then tightens back up to prevent stomach acid from flowing back into the esophagus. When the LES does not function properly, it fails to constrict properly, causing the backflowing, or reflux, or stomach acid.

Heartburn and even some acid reflux are common problems that many people experience on occasion. Feeling a burning sensation in the chest after eating a particularly large meal does not necessarily mean that one has GERD. When symptoms occur at least twice a week or interfere with daily life, a doctor may want to investigate the possibility of GERD, which requires more serious treatment than occasional heartburn.

Common symptoms of GERD may include:

  • Frequent instances of heartburn

  • Burning sensation and/or bad taste in the back of the throat

  • Chest pain

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Persistent, dry cough

  • Sore throat or hoarseness

  • Regurgitation of food or of a sour liquid

  • Sensation of food stuck in throat or chest

GERD can affect people of any age or race, but there are certain factors that leave a person at an increased risk. Obesity, hiatal hernia (the top of the stomach bulging into the diaphragm), pregnancy, smoking, asthma, diabetes, and disorders of the connective tissue all increase a person’s risk of developing GERD.

Once a doctor diagnoses GERD, he/she will often recommend lifestyle changes as a first step, including trying to identify and avoid triggers. Over-the-counter medications may be recommended at first, but if these prove ineffective, prescription medications may be used. While most cases of GERD can be controlled with medication, some cases may require surgery to strengthen or reinforce the LES.  If you are diagnosed with GERD, your doctor will work with you to determine the best course of treatment for your individual needs.

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