Also called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, acid reflux is another term for chronic heartburn that occurs when acid from your stomach backs up into your esophagus, causing burning or aching sensations in your chest and abdomen. Normally when we eat or drink, what we consume stays in the stomach and is prevented from flowing backward by a muscular connection between the stomach and the esophagus, called the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES. If the LES becomes damaged or weakens, some stomach acid can flow back into the esophagus and even up into the throat, causing the characteristic burning sensations, sometimes accompanied by a sore throat or hoarseness.
In addition to chronic discomfort, GERD can cause permanent damage to your esophagus, eventually leading to a condition called Barrett’s esophagus which can be a precursor to esophageal cancer.
While some mild and infrequent cases of heartburn can be treated with over-the-counter medications to provide relief, chronic heartburn – heartburn that occurs often or wakes you during the night – requires evaluation by a doctor to ensure it’s not an indication of a serious medical condition, and also to help protect your esophagus from damage. Simply treating the symptoms of heartburn doesn’t address the underlying cause, and it could actually be masking symptoms that could be signs of serious disease.
Sometimes, GERD can be treated with lifestyle changes like weight loss, quitting smoking, avoiding foods that cause reflux and other lifestyle changes. But often, it requires more aggressive treatment including medication to decrease stomach acid production and even surgery to strengthen the LES. Many patients benefit from a diagnostic procedure called endoscopy which uses a thin, lighted tube to view the esophagus and the LES to evaluate any damage.