What Is GERD And How Can I Know If I Have It?

Do you typically get heartburn after eating fried or spicy food, drinking acidic beverages such as coffee, tea or soda, or eating too fast? This might be more than acid reflux. It could actually be GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease.

Steven Silverman, MD

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, GERD affects about 20% of the U.S. population. It seems to occur equally in men and women, but you are more likely to develop GERD if you are:

  • overweight or obese
  • a pregnant woman
  • taking certain medicines
  • a smoker or regularly exposed to secondhand smoke

At Westchester Health, GERD is something we pay close attention to in our patients because as well as being very uncomfortable and causing difficulty swallowing, over time GERD can cause damage to esophageal tissues due to stomach acid backing up into the esophagus. This can lead to scarring and narrowing of the lower esophagus, and possibly even esophageal cancer.

What happens when you have acid reflux/GERD

As the Mayo Clinic describes it, each time you swallow, a circular band of muscle around the bottom of your esophagus (sphincter) relaxes to allow food and liquid to flow into your stomach, then it closes again. If the sphincter relaxes abnormally or weakens, stomach acid can flow back up into your esophagus. This constant backwash (acid reflux) irritates the lining of your esophagus, often causing it to become inflamed. Many people experience occasional acid reflux, but a diagnosis of GERD is given when “mild” acid reflux occurs at least twice a week, or “moderate to severe” acid reflux occurs at least once a week.

Typical symptoms of GERD

According to the American Gastroenterological Association, every person may not feel gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) in the same way. The most common symptoms include:

  • Heartburn after you eat
  • Burning pain behind the chest that may move up toward the neck
  • Burning pain that is worse when you are lying down or bending over
  • Feeling like food is coming back up into your mouth, maybe with a bitter taste
  • Sore throat or cough that won’t go away
  • Hoarseness
  • New or worsening asthma
  • Chest pain
  • Feeling like there is a lump in your throat
  • Pain when you swallow
  • Feeling as though food sticks in your throat when going down
  • Regurgitation of food or sour liquid
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Frequent burping

If you have any of the following “alarm” symptoms, talk to your doctor right away

Certain symptoms may indicate serious complications or life-threatening problems. If you experience any of these, contact your doctor as soon as possible or go to an emergency room.

  • Chest pain during activity, such as climbing stairs
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Choking while eating
  • Trouble swallowing food and liquids
  • Throwing up blood or material that looks like coffee grounds
  • Red or black stools

Your GERD may be caused by a hiatal hernia

Some physicians believe that a hiatal hernia (occurs when the upper part of the stomach moves up into the chest through a small opening in the diaphragm) may weaken the lower esophageal sphincter by allowing stomach contents to reflux more easily into the esophagus, making a person more prone to developing GERD. Although considered a condition of middle age, hiatal hernias can affect people of all ages.

Fortunately, there are treatments for GERD so you can get relief

Treatment options for GERD include drugs that reduce acid levels, such as proton pump inhibitors (Aciphex, Nexium, Prevacid, Prilosec and Protonix) and H2 blockers (Axid, Pepcid, Tagamet and Zantac).

In severe cases of GERD, surgeons using laparoscopic surgery can tighten a loose muscle between the stomach and the esophagus to inhibit the upward flow of acid, but with proper medical therapy and lifestyle modification, this is rarely necessary.

Foods to avoid

To prevent or relieve the symptoms of GERD, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases recommends

  • decreasing fatty foods
  • eating small, frequent meals instead of three large meals
  • avoiding chocolate, coffee, tomatoes and tomato products, and alcoholic drinks

Read our blogs on the subject

We’ve written several informative blogs focusing on conditions and disorders of the digestive system, which you can read here.

Helpful websites we recommend

Worried that you might have GERD? Please come see us.

If you think you might have GERD, or if your digestive tract is bothering you in any way or causing you pain, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment with one of our Westchester Health gastroenterologists. We’ll examine you evaluate your symptoms, maybe perform some tests, and together with you, decide on the best treatment going forward, given your individual health needs. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

By Steven Silverman, MD, an Internal Medicine/Gastroenterology specialist with Westchester Health, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners

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