A Burning Heart
Frequently deal with heartburn? You may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
How many times have you enjoyed a dinner out only to regret it later that evening? Something about the food you ate didn’t settle well in your stomach and now you’ve got heartburn and acid reflux just when you’re trying to go to bed. Some people deal only with occasional heart burn or acid indigestion in response to certain foods, while others suffer from a condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, commonly known as GERD.
What causes GERD and could it be the explanation for your pain and discomfort? If so, how is it best treated?
At the bottom of your esophagus (the tube that runs from your mouth to your stomach) there’s a ring called the lower esophageal sphincter or LES. In a perfect world, the LES opens to allow food to enter the stomach and quickly closes to prevent stomach acids and food from backing up into the esophagus.
Unfortunately, the LES doesn’t always work as it should and becomes weak or relaxed, allowing food and acids to travel up the esophagus. When acid reflux and heartburn symptoms occur at least a couple times a week and hinder your quality of life, you may be diagnosed with GERD.
Some Surprising Symptoms
As stomach acids irritate your esophagus and food backs up, the symptoms you’d expect include a burning sensation, pain, and pressure in your chest. Sometimes this pain can linger for up to two hours and worsen when you lie down. People may also experience an acidic or bitter taste in their mouths.
Other possible, more surprising symptoms of GERD include a dry cough, trouble swallowing, a sore throat, hoarseness, or feeling like there’s a lump in your throat.
So why does the LES fail to do its job? In many cases the LES is weakened from a hiatal hernia. This type of hernia occurs when part of the stomach extends through the diaphragm muscle into the chest. This could result from something as simple as coughing, straining, vomiting, or physical exertion.
Other causes of GERD include obesity, pregnancy, smoking, diabetes, or asthma. Many find that certain foods and drinks exacerbate their reflux symptoms. Common culprits include peppermint, citrus, spicy foods, garlic, onion, tomatoes, caffeine, coffee, chocolate, alcohol, and fried or fatty foods.
What To Do Now
When the symptoms of GERD become frequent or especially painful, make an appointment to see your doctor. Before prescribing medication, your doctor may advise dietary and lifestyle changes to try first. These include avoiding the foods that trigger your symptoms, eating smaller dinner portions, eating two to three hours before bed, losing excess weight, stopping smoking, and elevating the head of your bed a few inches to take advantage of gravity in combatting GERD symptoms.
Over-the-counter and prescription medications are also available to treat GERD. Temporary or infrequent use of antacids is an option to neutralize stomach acid, but overuse of antacids can lead to negative side effects. Chronic or frequent reflux and heartburn may require medications that reduce the production of stomach acids. Two types of these medications are H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors.
When medication fails to do its job, surgery or other procedures may be necessary to strengthen or repair the LES and give lifelong relief.
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