Heartburn - Is it Heartburn or GERD?


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Do you experience frequent heartburn? You should ask your doctor whether something more serious might be going on, even if the antacids you take knock it out quickly. Of particular concern is gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

GERD happens when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) does not close properly. The LES is basically a ring of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus that acts like a valve between the esophagus and stomach. When it doesn’t close tightly, stomach contents can leak back, or reflux, into the esophagus. The result? For many folks, it’s the chronic pain of heartburn.

Not One Symptom

Heartburn is the main symptom of GERD, but it is important to know that some people can have the disorder without feeling any acid indigestion. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) notes that other symptoms may include pain in the chest, hoarseness in the morning and trouble swallowing. You may even feel as though you are choking or have food stuck in your throat. GERD can also cause a dry cough and bad breath. And as bad as these symptoms make you feel, the potential repercussions are, alas, even worse: bleeding, ulcers, scars from tissue damage, difficulty swallowing, and, possibly, cancer.

What Causes GERD?

Though no one knows for sure what causes GERD, researchers have discovered that one contributing factor may be a hiatal hernia. This happens when the muscle wall that separates the stomach from the chest is forced out of position and ends up above the diaphragm. The diaphragm usually helps the lower esophageal sphincter keep acid from coming up into the esophagus, but the hernia interferes with this, and reflux is the result.

Other recognized potential triggers include: alcohol use, excess weight, pregnancy and smoking.

In addition, acid reflux may be triggered by eating certain foods such as citrus; chocolate; caffeinated drinks; fatty and fried foods; garlic and onions; mint and mint flavorings; spicy foods; and tomatoes and tomato-based foods such as spaghetti sauce, chili and pizza.

What Can Be Done?

The first step is to go see your doctor. An exam can help determine whether you are suffering from simple heartburn or GERD. According to NIDDK, over-the-counter (OTC) antacid medication may help people in the short term.

However, if it’s GERD, prescription medication might be your best bet. Your doctor may prescribe meds that are more effective than OTC ones; he or she may also perform tests to help determine the best treatment course for you. You’ll want to get to the doctor sooner rather than later, since GERD is a very treatable problem. Whether you have heartburn or GERD affects your treatment. If you’re not sure, see your doctor. ©REMEDY, Spring 2007

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John McIntosh is a writer for MediZine, LLC. Robert A. Barnett is Content Director of HealthyUpdates.com , a health education website produced by MediZine, LLC.


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