If you have what feels like frequent heartburn after eating, especially when you are lying down, then you may have gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. While most people experience occasional GERD symptoms, chronic problems have serious health complications. Here is more information about GERD, the problems it causes, and when you should see a gastroenterologist for treatment.
What Are the Symptoms of GERD?
GERD can bring up many symptoms, but the most noticeable one is heartburn. GERD is caused by a weakness of the esophageal sphincter. This sphincter allows food and water to pass through, but closes up to keep stomach acid from entering the esophagus. When the sphincter is weak, acid is more likely to leak out. The esophagus is not designed to handle the harsh stomach acid, so you feel pain when the acid flows up. The problem is at its worse overnight.
What Health Problems Does GERD Cause?
Frequent GERD causes damage to the esophagus and results in it swelling and narrowing. This could make swallowing food difficult. You could also develop esophageal cancer. GERD may also result in fluid entering your lungs and causing asthma. Stomach acid can reach the throat and cause problems with the vocal cords and hoarseness. GERD could potentially cause problems in the sinuses as well.
What Triggers GERD?
Triggers and risks vary between people. However, any condition that causes slow stomach emptying or that pushes up on the stomach could lead to GERD. For example, pregnancy is a trigger and risk factor because the uterus pushes up on the stomach as it expands. Smoking can also aggravate GERD symptoms. Having a full stomach at night may trigger GERD as well. Some people find that coffee, soda, and fatty foods also cause regular problems.
When Does GERD Need a Doctor's Intervention?
See a gastroenterologist if you have frequent GERD symptoms, such as two or more times a week. You should especially be checked out if over-the-counter medications don't give much relief. Also, see a doctor if you suspect your GERD is making asthma symptoms worse or you are having trouble swallowing.
The good news is that GERD is usually not life threatening and is treatable. Most cases can be controlled with medications and lifestyle changes. In a few instances, surgery to support and strengthen the esophageal sphincter is required, but only as a last result. Failure to control GERD may lead to further and more permanent complications. For more information about GERD and other digestive-related conditions, contact a gastroenterology doctor.