Nearly everyone has acid reflux (or heartburn) once in a while, usually after eating a particularly spicy or fatty meal, or after eating too much. Being stressed out can also cause heartburn, and sometimes acid reflux occurs when we eat too close to bedtime or naptime. Generally, lying down can usher in sensations of burning or pain in the chest or throat. This type of heartburn, while unpleasant, generally goes away fairly soon, and it usually doesn’t recur unless we repeat one of the behaviors that caused the episode in the first place.
But for others, acid reflux is part of their weekly, if not daily, routine. People who have chronic acid reflux — heartburn and related symptoms that occur on a regular basis — may be suffering from a condition called GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), and they’re at risk for more than just a lot of discomfort. Over time, that repeated backwash of irritating and corrosive stomach acid can cause serious health problems and even increase the risk of developing esophageal cancer. Like other chronic medical conditions, getting treatment at Hawaii Gastroenterology Specialists as early as possible is the key to reducing those risks. And that begins with knowing what causes GERD and what symptoms to be on the lookout for.
What causes GERD?
Some people develop chronic heartburn as a result of lifestyle habits or “modifiable” risk factors, like smoking, being overweight or obese, dietary choices, or even because of the medications they take on a regular basis. But people with GERD typically have a different type of problem, one that affects the acid flow from their esophagus to their stomach.
When you eat, the food you swallow travels down your esophagus and into your stomach where acids help break down the food so your body can metabolize it. Where the esophagus and stomach meet, there’s a muscular opening called the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES. A sphincter is a ring-shaped opening that’s opened and closed by muscles. When the sphincter is closed, it provides a barrier or “door” between two distinct areas. In the case of the LES, it acts as a barrier between the esophagus and the stomach, preventing the food and acids that are in the stomach from washing back up into the esophagus.
People with GERD tend to have sphincters that are damaged or weakened, allowing those acids to “reflux” or flow backward into the esophagus. Over time, the acids can irritate and erode the end of your esophagus, causing sores or ulcers and bleeding. Eventually, scar tissue can form, making it harder to swallow. Some people go on to develop what’s called Barrett’s esophagus, an alteration in the esophageal tissue that can make you more prone to developing cancer.
Treatment for GERD
When “caught” early, GERD can often be treated successfully with lifestyle changes and sometimes medications. In more serious or advanced cases, surgery may be required to address scarring or to repair the damaged LES. To diagnose GERD, your gastroenterologist might perform a simple test called Bravo pH monitoring to measure the amount of acids refluxing into your esophagus. In this test, your doctor will insert a long, thin tube called a catheter through your nose and into your esophagus. Using the catheter, he’ll attach a very tiny capsule to the area just above your LES. The capsule contains a sensitive device designed to measure acid levels, as well as a tiny transmitter and battery.
For the next two or three days, the device will measure the acid levels in your esophagus and transmit those measurements to a separate recorder you’ll wear on your waist. The battery lasts for two or three days, after which you’ll come back to the office so we can “read” the data captured by the recorder. The capsule will fall off on its own in about a week and be flushed out in your waste. In addition to its diagnostic role, Bravo pH monitoring also may be performed while you’re being treated for GERD to make sure the treatment you’re receiving is effective in preventing excess acid reflux.
Put an end to your chronic acid reflux
No matter what's causing your acid reflux, the team at Hawaii Gastroenterology Specialists can help you relieve your symptoms and start feeling better. To find out what's causing your symptoms or to learn about the treatment we offer, book an appointment online today.