GERD stands for gastrointestinal reflux disease, a condition that occurs when acid from the stomach moves backward into the esophagus (refluxes). Normally, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a strong band of muscle between the esophagus and the stomach, prevents acid and food from moving backward into the esophagus. But sometimes, the LES becomes weakened or damaged and reflux occurs, resulting in symptoms including chronic acid indigestion or heartburn.
Several factors can contribute to GERD, including hernias, tumors, obesity, smoking and dietary choices. GERD often develops during pregnancy, as the expanding belly presses upward against the stomach, placing pressure and strain on the LES.
In addition to painful symptoms in the chest and esophagus, GERD can cause hoarseness and sore throat, and left untreated, the continual backwash of stomach acid can eventually cause changes in the esophageal lining. Over time, the lining tissue becomes smooth, resembling the tissue that lines the intestine. This condition is called Barrett's esophagus, and it can significantly increase the risk of developing esophageal cancer.
In many cases, GERD can be treated with lifestyle changes like weight loss, dietary changes and quitting smoking. When GERD does not respond to lifestyle changes, medications and even surgery may be needed to provide relief and protect the esophagus from further damage.
Occasional heartburn may be treated with over-the-counter antacids, but then heartburn is chronic, these medications can wind up masking symptoms that could indicate a more serious underlying condition. If you have chronic heartburn, it's important to have an exam and evaluation. In most cases, a simple outpatient procedure called an upper endoscopy can determine the extent of damage that's occurred so treatment can be customized to your needs.
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