Acid reflux is a common condition that features a burning pain, known as heartburn, in the lower chest area. It happens when stomach acid flows back up into the food pipe.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is diagnosed when acid reflux occurs more than twice a week. Exact figures vary, but diseases resulting from acid reflux are the most common gut complaint seen by hospital departments. The American College of Gastroenterology says that over 60 million People experience heartburn at least once a month, and at least 15 million as often as daily. Chronic heart burn can lead to serious complications.
Fast facts on acid reflux
Here are some key points about acid reflux. More detail is in the main article.
- Acid reflux is also known as heartburn, acid indigestion, or pyrosis.
- It happens when some of the acidic stomach contents go back up into the esophagus.
- Acid reflux creates a burning pain in the lower chest area, often after eating.
- Lifestyle risk factors include obesity and smoking.
- Drug treatments are the most common therapy and are available on prescription and over the counter (OTC).
Causes of Acid Reflux
Acid reflux is when some of the acid content of the stomach flows up into the esophagus, into the gullet, which moves food down from the mouth. Despite the name, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart.
The stomach contains hydrochloric acid, a strong acid that helps break down food and protect against pathogens such as bacteria.
The lining of the stomach is specially adapted to protect it from the powerful acid, but the esophagus is not protected.
A ring of muscle, the gastroesophageal sphincter, normally acts as a valve that lets food into the stomach but not back up into the esophagus. When this valve fails, and stomach contents are regurgitated into the esophagus, the symptoms of acid reflux are felt, such as heartburn.
Food and dietary habits that have been linked to acid reflux include:
- a high intake of table salt
- a diet low in dietary fiber
- eating large meals
- lying down within 2 to 3 hours of eating a meal
- consuming chocolate, carbonated drinks, and acidic juices
Symptoms of Acid Reflux
Acid reflux usually produces heartburn, whether it is due to a single episode of overeating or persistent GERD.
Heartburn is an uncomfortable burning sensation that occurs in the esophagus and is felt behind the breastbone area. It tends to get worse when lying down or bending over. It can last for several hours and often worsens after eating food.
The pain of heartburn may move up toward the neck and throat. Stomach fluid can reach the back of the throat in some cases, producing a bitter or sour taste.
Acid reflux and heartburn are common and relatively easy to diagnose, however, they can be confused with other chest complaints such as heart attack, pneumonia, chest wall pain and pulmonary embolus.
Treatment of Acid Reflux
The main treatment options for acid reflux are:
- PPIs, including omeprazole, rabeprazole, and esomeprazole
- H2 blockers, including cimetidine, ranitidine, and famotidine
- Over-the-counter treatments, such as antacids,
- Alginate drugs, including Gaviscon.
These medications are generally safe and effective, but like any prescription drug, they are not appropriate for all people with reflux disease and can cause side effects. For instance, they can cause problems absorbing nutrients. This can lead to malnutrition.
Possible complications of Acid Reflux
Without treatment, acid reflux can lead to serious complications in the long term, including an increased risk of cancer. Persistent exposure to stomach acid can damage the esophagus, leading to:
Esophagitis: the lining of the esophagus is inflamed, causing irritation, bleeding, and ulceration in some cases
Strictures: damage caused by stomach acid leads to scar development and difficulties swallowing, with food getting stuck as it travels down the esophagus
Barrett’s esophagus: a serious complication where repeated exposure to stomach acid causes changes in the cells and tissues lining the esophagus with potential to develop into cancer cells.
Endeavour to see your doctor if you have been having heart burns which has lasted for some time for proper diagnosis and treatment. Heart burns can be a sign of other serious underlying conditions that can treated more easily when discovered early.