Last Updated: October 26, 2017

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

Overview

As food passes from the mouth through the esophagus and into the stomach, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) prevents the backflow of gastric content. The LES, which is a bundle of muscles at the base of the esophagus, is not under voluntary control and opens only in response to swallowed food. This ensures the unidirectional movement of food and isolates the stomach’s acidic environment from the sensitive lining of the esophagus.

When a small amount of partially digested food and stomach acid escapes back into the esophagus, a burning sensation, or heartburn, results. Occasional heartburn, especially following a large meal, is normal in healthy individuals. However, frequent episodes of heartburn potentially indicate gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which, if left untreated, can damage the esophagus and organs of the oral cavity, and lead to respiratory problems and esophageal cancer.

Causes and Risk Factors

Esophagus and stomach

GERD results when the LES is weakened and not functioning properly, thus allowing the backflow, or reflux, of gastric juices into the esophagus. Body abnormalities and other factors including diet, obesity, and pregnancy can also contribute to GERD.

Symptoms

Reoccurring heartburn is the most common symptom of GERD. The frequent exposure of other organs to stomach acids produces additional symptoms, including:

Diagnosis and Treatment

Gastroenterologists, doctors who specialize in digestive disorders, generally treat GERD symptoms prior to extensive diagnostic testing. For advanced or difficult-to-treat cases, various tests are performed to assess the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Treatments options for GERD vary based on symptoms and include lifestyle changes, medications, and surgery.

Prevention

Lifestyle changes that help treat GERD symptoms are also effective preventative measures. These include:

Sources

Related Topics

Authored by: Tina Shahian, PhD