ABCs of acid reflux

August 18, 2014 By Rosalind Van Stolk, M.D., gastroenterologist

We have all probably regretted it when we heaped on extra onions and sauerkraut on our hotdog or tried three kinds of pie at Thanksgiving.

Yes, it tasted great. However, it may soon be obvious that the extra helping came with something more: a stomachache and a burning feeling in the chest.

Heartburn is caused by simple acid reflux: stomach acid rises up the esophagus causing a caustic sensation that may be accompanied by a sour or bitter taste.

This problem is not a cause for an alarm if it happens infrequently. But if it occurs several times weekly, you may have acid reflux disease or GERD, the more advanced gastroesophageal reflux disease.

The problem is not in the food itself or overeating, but the weakening of a ring of muscle or lower esophageal sphincter located at the entrance to the stomach. If this muscle doesn't entirely close or it malfunctions, acid can enter the esophagus.

Factors include being overweight, snacking shortly before bedtime, eating or drinking certain foods or beverages, smoking, being pregnant and taking certain medications.

Other uncomfortable symptoms of acid reflux are bloating, a sensation of food being stuck in the throat, nausea, weight loss for no reason, bad breath, dental erosion, throat problems and more.

At first, antacids may relieve minor discomfort. However, the problem should not be ignored. To be sure, it is best to see a specialist who can conduct diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause. Change in lifestyle habits, prescription medication and in extreme cases, surgery, may be the key.

Sufferers should not just try to live with the discomfort. Untreated GERD can lead to more serious problems such as damage to the lining of the esophagus, bleeding ulcers, and swallowing or even breathing difficulties. Barrett's esophagus, a change in the lining of the esophagus, can be a precursor to a potentially fatal form of cancer.

People with acid reflux disease don't have to suffer indefinitely. With prompt and proper diagnosis, treatment and precautions, it is possible to once again enjoy a delicious meal and comfortable sleep.

Gastroenterologist Rosalind Van Stolk, M.D., is a member of The Hospital of Central Connecticut (HOCC) medical staff. She practices at 1 Liberty Square, New Britain (860.229.9688). For referrals to HOCC physicians, please contact our free Need-A-Physician referral service by phone at 800.321.6244.