From GERD to worse: Don’t ignore that burning feeling in the throat

General Wellness
Woman dropping antacid into glass

It's not uncommon to experience heartburn after a heavy meal or a spicy dish, but for some people, heartburn and acid reflux occur more regularly, often multiple times per week. This recurrence of reflux can lead to a serious condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease, more commonly referred to as GERD.

GERD is a digestive disorder that occurs when acid produced in the stomach flows back up into the esophagus. Typically, this flow is controlled by the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a muscle between the esophagus and the stomach that relaxes to allow food and liquid to pass through to the stomach, and closes once it has passed. However, when the LES is weakened or relaxes, it's easy for acid and sometimes food in the stomach to flow back up into the esophagus.

"It is normal for the LES to relax from time to time, but excessive amounts of backflow can lead to damage of the esophagus lining," explains Patricia Wong, MD, gastroenterologist and medical director of the Women's Digestive Health Center at Lankenau Medical Center, part of Main Line Health. "If you are experiencing frequent heartburn symptoms, it's important to have your symptoms evaluated, as you may need medication to control the acid reflux or an upper endoscopy to evaluate for chronic injury."

What are common signs and symptoms of GERD?

Symptoms of GERD or acid reflux can vary from person to person. Classic symptoms include a burning sensation in the chest and the feeling of regurgitated food or a sour taste in the mouth, particularly while reclining. However, some people feel no symptoms at all (referred to as "silent reflux") while others feel extreme chest pain. If you have complications from chronic acid exposure, you may also experience difficulty swallowing, a sore throat, a dry cough, or the feeling of a lump in your throat.

What happens if acid reflux not treated?

If you're experiencing symptoms of GERD, it's important to make an appointment with your physician. Left untreated, GERD can cause inflammation of the esophagus and complications like esophageal ulcers, scar tissue, and an increased risk of esophageal cancer. People with chronic GERD also have a greater risk of developing Barrett's esophagus, a condition that causes changes to the cells of the esophageal lining. While anyone is at risk for developing this condition, it is more common in Caucasian men over 50 who are obese who also happen to be chronic smokers with existing reflux issues.

How do you treat GERD?

Fortunately, GERD is easily treated. Although GERD treatment options will vary based on your health history and the severity of your symptoms, many patients can begin with over-the-counter or prescription medications combined with lifestyle changes.

"Treatment of GERD requires avoiding triggers that cause your stomach to produce acid, such as caffeine and alcohol. Often, patients also require medications that suppress acid production, which will also allow any damage to the esophagus to heal as well," says Dr. Wong.

Although most cases of GERD can be controlled through lifestyle changes and medication, there are other GERD treatment options available for more serious cases. To avoid long-term medication use, some patients may be eligible for surgery to strengthen the LES.

Main Line Health offers complete diagnostic and therapeutic services for patients with disorders of the digestive tract, which includes the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, colon, rectum, gall bladder, liver and pancreas. Find out more about Main Line Health's gastroenterology services.

Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654).