Acid Reflux

What Is It?

Acid reflux occurs when stomach acids back up in the esophagus, which is the tube that connects the mouth and the stomach. The condition can be painful and can cause discomfort, since undigested or partially digested food can also move back up to the esophagus from the stomach.

Acid reflux might occur intermittently or frequently. Acid reflux disease can lead to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is a condition that describes chronic acid reflux. Over time, GERD can cause permanent damage to the esophagus. The condition can also lead to esophageal cancer, especially with smoking and heavy alcohol use.

It is important to distinguish symptoms of chronic acid reflux from indigestion. While GERD and indigestion can both cause similar problems of discomfort and heartburn, the conditions have different causes. While indigestion results from diet, the ultimate cause of chronic acid reflux is a malfunctioning sphincter in the area where the small intestine and esophagus connect.

Certain lifestyle modifications can help relieve symptoms of GERD and indigestion. Certain medications including beta-blockers, bronchodilators, calcium channel blockers, and progestin can trigger symptoms for both conditions. Foods that are high in fat can also cause symptoms of indigestion and heartburn. Because the symptoms of acid reflux and indigestion are so similar, many people may be unaware that they have an intestinal abnormality that is causing GERD.

If you experience frequent indigestion and symptoms of heartburn, you should see a doctor as soon as possible to rule out possibilities of GERD. If you have GERD then you might be at risk for long term complications.

It is possible to live a balanced and healthy life even if you have GERD. You may need to work with a dietician or doctor to establish healthy eating and behavioral patterns, and you may need to be prepared for some trial and error before finding a successful treatment plan, but in the end, many people are able to successfully control their condition.

Types

There are two types of acid reflux. Supine acid reflux occurs when a person is sleeping, and upright acid reflux occurs when a person is awake. Both types of acid reflux result from a combination of dietary, genetic, and environmental factors. With supine acid reflux, a person's sleeping position can trigger discomfort.

Of the two types, supine acid reflux is the most dangerous. When a person is lying down, stomach acid travels up and down the esophagus, causing double damage. When a person is standing, gravity stabilizes the acid in the stomach, so less damage results from indigestion and stomach irritability. Some people with supine acid reflux may be unaware of their condition since they are sleeping.

Both types of acid reflux occur as a result of a malfunctioning sphincter. Obesity, cigarette smoking, and alcohol consumption are all factors that can influence both types of acid reflux.

Symptoms & Warning Signs

Chronic heartburn is the major symptom of acid reflux. Other symptoms include burning in the chest area and throat, difficulty in swallowing, and chest pain when bending, eating, or lying down. The person suffering from acid reflux can also have a sensation of food being stuck in the throat or upper chest. Swallowing and breathing are typically left unimpaired, but the person will have the feeling that something isn't going all the way down. Respiratory problems are other common side effects.

Causes & Risk Factors

Acid reflux is common and can result from a variety of causes. For most patients, the problem is related to a problem with the muscles that connect the esophagus to the stomach. Eating habits, dietary habits, and overall health are also common symptoms. Many pregnant women experience symptoms of acid reflux.

Prevention & Treatment

Dietary changes can help ease symptoms and prevent acid reflux episodes. Medications including acid suppressants, proton pumps, and antacids are commonly prescribed for chronic or persistent cases. Some serious cases require surgery.

Tests & Diagnosis

A medical professional will make a diagnosis based on symptoms. Severe cases might require additional tests in order to assess long-term or permanent damage. A common test is an endoscopy, which involves inserting a tube down the throat for the doctor to visually examine the area.

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