Gastroesophageal reflux, commonly known as heartburn, is a burning feeling in the center of your chest. It often happens after you eat, after you bend over, or when you lie down. Nearly everyone experiences mild reflux symptoms at some point in life. But GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, is reflux that occurs often enough that the symptoms are bothersome.
When you swallow, food passes down your throat and through your esophagus to your stomach. A muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter controls the opening between the esophagus and the stomach. It remains tightly closed except when you swallow. When this muscle fails to close, the contents of the stomach, which contain acid, can travel back up into the esophagus. This backward movement is called reflux. When stomach acid enters the lower part of the esophagus, it can produce the burning sensation of heartburn.
When reflux happens only occasionally, it is not really a concern. If it happens more than two times per week, reflux becomes GERD.
Who Gets GERD?
GERD can happen to people at any age.
What Are the Symptoms of GERD?
Frequent heartburn (also called acid indigestion or acid reflux) is the most common symptom of GERD. However, some adults with GERD and most children under the age of 12 do not have heartburn. In these people, symptoms of GERD might include coughing, problems swallowing, and/or asthma-like breathing symptoms.
How Is GERD Diagnosed?
A doctor will do a physical exam and take a medical history to diagnose GERD. He or she may also order certain tests, including:
Upper endoscopy, which uses an endoscope -- a thin, flexible tube that has a light and a camera
pH monitoring exam
How Is GERD Treated?
Your doctor might offer suggestions for treatment of GERD that involve lifestyle changes and medications. The following lifestyle changes might help you avoid GERD symptoms:
Losing weight, if necessary
Eating frequent, small meals
Avoiding tight clothing
Not lying down for three hours after eating
Raising the head of your bed by 6-8 inches
Avoiding food or beverages that might make symptoms worse
Foods that might make symptoms worse include:
Beverages that contain caffeine
Tomato-based food products (such as spaghetti, chili, or pizza)
Citrus fruits or juices
Greasy or fried foods
What Types of Drugs Treat GERD?
You might find relief from over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. Or your doctor may prescribe drugs to treat your GERD. You should consult your health care provider before adding any kind of medication, including OTC drugs. The drugs work to control acid production or to improve the functioning of digestive muscles. GERD treatments may include antacids, foaming agents, proton pump inhibitors, H2 blockers, and prokinetics.