GERD stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease, which is the backflow of stomach contents (including stomach acid) upward into the esophagus (the swallowing tube that extends from the mouth to the stomach and sits behind the breast bone). The lining of the stomach protects the stomach from the effects of its own acids. Because the esophagus lacks a similar protective lining, stomach acid that flows backward (refluxes) into it causes heartburn (also called dyspepsia).
Many people experience heartburn occasionally; however, people who get heartburn or other GERD symptoms persistently are considered to have GERD. GERD is the most common acid-related condition in Canada. About 10% to 20% of the western world suffers from GERD. Adults, children, and even infants can have GERD.
GERD occurs when the valve that normally keeps acid in the stomach isn't functioning properly. This valve is called the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES, and is located at the bottom of the esophagus. Acid that moves from the stomach into the esophagus damages its lining and can cause burning and pain.
Risk factors for GERD include:
- age (over 50 years old)
- being overweight or obese
- eating and drinking certain types of foods and drinks (see below)
- having excess abdominal fat
- taking certain medications (e.g., NSAIDs, some antidepressants, calcium channel blockers, corticosteroids)
The following foods can cause symptoms of GERD, but may not necessarily cause GERD itself:
- alcoholic drinks
- coffee, tea, cola
- foods with high acid content (e.g., tomatoes, orange juice)
- fried or fatty foods
- spicy foods
GERD may sometimes be associated with a condition called hiatus hernia in which a portion of the stomach lining pushes up through the diaphragm into the chest cavity. People with severe GERD almost always have a hiatus hernia.
Symptoms and Complications
The main symptom of GERD is heartburn, which is a burning pain behind the breastbone that can travel to the back of the throat. The pain can last up to two hours and is often worsened by eating, lying down, or bending over.
Because heartburn and a heart attack have similar symptoms, it is important to note their differences. For someone having a heart attack, burning pain generally travels progressively down the left arm or both arms. For someone with GERD, the burning pain is localized to the upper chest. In addition, exercise may worsen the chest pain for someone having a heart attack (or someone with heart disease), while rest and certain medications may help to relieve it. On the other hand, the burning pain associated with GERD is usually not affected by physical activity. In any case, even people with characteristic features of GERD may require tests to ensure the symptoms are not being caused by a heart attack.
Other symptoms of GERD include regurgitation (swallowed food or liquid going back up into the throat or mouth), a sour or bitter taste in the throat or back of the mouth, excessive saliva, belching, upset stomach, or vomiting. People who inhale the reflux acid may experience coughing, hoarseness, or wheezing. Symptoms of GERD are generally worse after meals.
If GERD is not managed well, other complications can arise over time. These include:
- esophageal strictures (scarring of the lining of the esophagus), which reduce the diameter of the esophagus and make swallowing difficult
- esophagitis (inflammation of the esophagus), which can make swallowing painful
- pharyngitis (inflammation of the throat), which affects the vocal cords and can alter a person's voice and speech
- dental problems, such as an increased risk of cavities or tooth damage due to the acid reflux
- asthma, especially in adults
- Barrett's hyperplasia or Barrett's esophagus, which occurs when abnormal healing takes place after an ulcer has destroyed an area of the esophageal lining (The usual lining is replaced with tissue like that found in the stomach or intestine. People with this condition may be at a higher risk of developing cancer of the esophagus over time.)
Making the Diagnosis
Doctors usually diagnose GERD by assessing symptoms. Only people with severe chronic heartburn are likely to be tested for GERD. Tests may include a series of X-rays of the stomach to look for other possible problems, such as peptic ulcers. A blood or breath test may be performed to rule out the presence of the bacteria called H. pylori.
There are also tests to measure the pH (acidity) of the esophagus and the internal pressure of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The most important diagnostic tool is the endoscope, a fibre-optic tube passed down the throat that permits the doctor to see the inside of the esophagus (a procedure called endoscopy).
People who have had regular or daily heartburn for 5 years or more should be tested for Barrett's esophagus. For patients who have this condition, many doctors perform regular checkups to look for changes that may eventually develop into cancerous growths.
Treatment and Prevention
Most symptoms of GERD can be managed with a combination of medications and lifestyle changes. Surgery is reserved for people with severe complications but is needed only rarely.
Medications that can be used to neutralize stomach acid are antacids (e.g., aluminum or magnesium hydroxide*, calcium carbonate, bismuth subsalicylate). Medications that can be used to reduce the production of stomach acid include H2-antagonists (e.g., cimetidine, ranitidine, famotidine, nizatidine) and proton pump inhibitors (e.g., dexlansoprazole, omeprazole, lansoprazole, pantoprazole, esomeprazole, rabeprazole).
For some people, a group of medications called prokinetic agents are used to help move the stomach content through the bowels and prevent any backward flow (e.g., metoclopramide, domperidone).
In addition to medications, symptoms of GERD can be improved by making one or more lifestyle changes. For example:
- Eat meals earlier, especially dinner.
- Eat smaller meals more frequently, instead of 2 or 3 large meals.
- Avoid lying down within 2 or 3 hours after meals.
- Reduce alcohol and caffeine intake.
- Stop smoking.
- Lose excess weight.
- Exercise regularly.
- Place the head of your bed 6 inches higher than the foot of the bed.
Most people can have successful treatment by taking medications and making lifestyle and diet changes.
*All medications have both common (generic) and brand names. The brand name is what a specific manufacturer calls the product (e.g., Tylenol®). The common name is the medical name for the medication (e.g., acetaminophen). A medication may have many brand names, but only one common name. This article lists medications by their common names. For information on a given medication, check our Drug Information database. For more information on brand names, speak with your doctor or pharmacist.