When swallowing, food passes down the throat and through the esophagus to the stomach. Normally, a muscular valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) opens to allow food into the stomach (or to permit belching); then it closes again. Next, the stomach releases strong acids to help break down the food. But if the lower esophageal sphincter opens too often or does not close tight enough, stomach acid can reflux, or seep back into the esophagus, damaging it and causing the burning sensation we know as heartburn.
Most people have felt heartburn at one time or another. In fact, the American Gastroenterological Association reports that more than 60 million Americans experience heartburn/reflux symptoms at least once each month. Though uncomfortable, heartburn does not usually present a serious health problem for most people.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a relatively common condition that affects from up to 20% of the population. It is a chronic reflux of stomach contents into the esophagus. GERD manifests itself as several symptoms including heartburn, regurgitation, and difficulty swallowing. Thus, if heartburn symptoms occur frequently and persistently, they are most likely caused by GERD.
The severity of GERD depends on lower esophageal sphincter dysfunction, as well as the type and amount of fluid brought up from the stomach.
Treatments aim to reduce the amount of reflux or reduce the potential for damage to the esophageal lining from refluxed substances.
In addition, doctors recommend lifestyle and dietary modification to lessen acid reflux.