Acid Reflux 101 – What is Acid Reflux? Your “Burning” Questions Answered

We’ve all heard the term “acid reflux”, but how many of us really know what it means?  When does it become a problem and what steps should be taken to treat acid reflux, or even prevent it from occurring in the first place? Learning the basics will help you determine if acid reflux is affecting you and if it’s time to seek professional help.

So, what is acid reflux and what are its symptoms?

The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is a ring of muscle which functions as a valve at the entrance to your stomach.  The LES should close as soon as food passes through it, but if it doesn’t close completely or simply opens too often, stomach acid can travel up into your esophagus.  This backflow of acid is called gastroesophageal reflux, or acid reflux as it is commonly referred to.  Acid reflux can irritate the lining of your esophagus, resulting in a burning sensation in your chest that most of us know as heartburn.  During an episode of reflux, you may also taste regurgitated food or sour liquid at the back of your mouth.  According to Firelands Physician Group Gastroenterologist Martin Beerman, MD, patients may also experience less common symptoms such as hoarseness, chronic cough, or trouble swallowing.

When should I see my doctor?

Many people experience occasional acid reflux, but it can progress to a more severe condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).  GERD is characterized by mild acid reflux that occurs at least twice per week, or moderate to severe episodes of reflux experienced on at least a weekly basis.  Not only painful, GERD can also be an increased risk factor for more serious problems including ulcers and esophageal cancer.  

You should talk to your doctor if you suspect that you have GERD, your reflux symptoms worsen, or you experience nausea, vomiting, or difficulty swallowing.For those with more frequent or severe symptoms, your doctor may utilize a number of investigative procedures to confirm a diagnosis of GERD and also screen for other issues.  Tests can include barium swallow (esophagram), esophageal manometry, pH monitoring, and endoscopy, during which a biopsy may be taken.

What are some common treatments?  Can I prevent acid reflux?

For individuals experiencing typical symptoms of acid reflux, Dr. Beerman usually recommends non-medical lifestyle changes as a first line of treatment.  He advises patients to not smoke, to refrain from eating soon before going to bed, and to maintain a healthy weight.  Other natural, proven ways to help alleviate symptoms include eating smaller portions at mealtime, adhering to a low-fat heart healthy diet, avoiding alcoholic beverages and excessive amounts of caffeine, and exercising regularly while minimizing time spent in sedentary states like sitting or reclining.

If necessary, the symptoms of acid reflux can be treated with several different types of medication, including over-the-counter antacids, H-2 receptor blockers (cimetidine, famotidine, ranitidine), and proton pump inhibitors (omeprazole, lansoprazole, pantoprazole).  In the most severe cases, if lifestyle changes and typical medical treatments are not adequately controlling the effects of chronic acid reflux, doctors may recommend a surgical procedure as a last resort.

So, whether you’re becoming increasingly dependent on a steady diet of antacids to make it through your day or you’re lying awake at night suffering from frequent heartburn, know there are often simple and effective steps you can take to ease your discomfort.  Contact Firelands Regional Medical Center’s Digestive Health, Pulmonary and Pain Relief Center for further information on how to effectively manage the underlying causes and unpleasant effects of acid reflux and GERD.