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Thursday, June 1, 2023

Taming the Flames: Understanding GERD and Heartburn

Posted By: Advancing Care

Gastroesophageal reflux disease, known as GERD, is a chronic digestive disorder that affects one in five American adults. One of the most common symptoms of GERD is heartburn, which is characterized by a burning sensation in the chest that occurs when stomach acid flows back up into the esophagus. While heartburn is a common issue for many people, it can be a sign of a more serious condition like GERD if it occurs frequently or becomes severe.

“There are several factors that can cause GERD and heartburn, including lifestyle choices, other medical conditions and certain foods and beverages,” says Vipul Shah, MD, Co-Director of the Esophageal and Reflux Center at WMCHealth’s Good Samaritan Hospital. “Understanding these triggers can help you keep symptoms under control and reduce your risk of developing complications.”

Understanding What Causes GERD and Heartburn

Heartburn is typically occasional and temporary, often triggered by certain foods, overeating or lying down after a meal. GERD, on the other hand, is diagnosed when the persistent reflux of stomach acid causes troublesome symptoms or complications that significantly impact a person's quality of life.

One of the primary causes of GERD and heartburn is a weakened lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which is the muscle that separates the esophagus from the stomach. When this muscle is weak, stomach acid can travel back up into the esophagus, causing irritation and inflammation. Certain lifestyle choices and preexisting conditions, such as smoking, drinking alcohol and obesity, can weaken the LES and increase your risk of developing GERD and heartburn.

Vipul Shah, MD
Vipul Shah, MD

“Another cause of GERD and heartburn is a hiatal hernia, which occurs when the upper part of the stomach bulges up through the diaphragm into the chest cavity,” explains Dr. Shah. “This condition, which weakens the LES and contributes to GERD and heartburn, is more common in people over   50 and can often be managed with lifestyle modifications and medication.”

A few different medical conditions can also contribute to the development of GERD. These include gastroparesis, which slows the movement of food through the digestive tract, and scleroderma, which is a connective tissue disorder that can impact the muscles of the digestive system. Pregnancy is also known to increase the risk of developing GERD and heartburn due to hormonal changes and increased pressure on the stomach.

“Your diet plays a key role in your likelihood of getting GERD or experiencing heartburn, with spicy and acidic foods, caffeine, chocolate and alcohol being the biggest culprits,” says Dr. Shah. “Many patients experience swift relief when they limit or cut these foods and beverages out altogether.”

Managing GERD and Heartburn

Even if symptoms are mild or nonexistent, GERD can lead to other health complications, including damage to the throat, inflammation or narrowing of the esophagus, and in severe cases, esophageal cancer. If changes to your lifestyle, including dietary changes, weight loss or eliminating alcohol and tobacco don’t offer sufficient relief, medications such as antacids, proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) and H2 blockers can help decrease the amount of acid in the stomach and reduce irritation.

“In rare but severe cases, surgery may be necessary to strengthen the LES or repair a hiatal hernia,” says Dr. Shah. “Surgery is typically reserved for those who do not respond to other forms of treatment or have complications such as bleeding or narrowing of the esophagus.”

Whether you suffer from frequent heartburn or suspect you might have a more serious condition like GERD, you have options. Make an appointment with at the Esophageal and Reflux Center at WMCHealth’s Good Samaritan Hospital to learn more.