July 7, 2008
Heartburn is a condition where stomach acid backs up into the lower esophagus. When a muscular valve called the lower esophageal sphincter relaxes and allows acidic stomach fluids to come back up, reflux occurs. Unlike the lining of the stomach, which is equipped to handle high levels of acid, the lining of the esophagus is sensitive and easily inflamed.
Heartburn usually begins as a burning pain that starts behind the breastbone and radiates upward to the neck. Severe heartburn can be confused with heart problems and vice-versa, therefore obtaining proper diagnosis and care is very important. If left untreated, chronic acid reflux can damage the esophagus and possibly lead to cancer of the esophagus. As many as 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month. There are varying degrees of heartburn.
Chronic heartburn can lead to a more serious disease þu gastroesophageal reflux disease. Heartburn, regurgitation, belching, bloating, hoarseness, chronic sore throat, difficulty breathing, difficulty sleeping or lying flat are all signs of GERD.
Find out if you have symptoms of GERD:
If you experience one or more of the symptoms above, there is a good chance you have GERD. Untreated, GERD can lead to more serious health problems such as bleeding or ulcers, difficulty swallowing or even esophageal cancer.
Some factors that can make GERD worse include:
Conditions that cause difficulty with digestion can increase the risk of heartburn or GERD. These include:
Your physician will use this procedure to evaluate the condition of tissue in your esophagus and stomach. Using a slender scope, your physician can take pictures and biopsies of these areas as necessary. Any damage to the esophagus from GERD is assessed.
This procedure measures pressure in the esophagus and provides information about its function.
24-hour pH Study
This study involves recording actual acid levels (pH) in the esophagus for 24 hours while you are at home and carrying out your daily activities. This information accurately establishes whether or not GERD is the cause of your symptoms.
The array of medications for heartburn treatment is rapidly changing. Physicians can help you make decisions on medication benefits versus its expense.
Minimally Invasive Surgery
When medicine isn't the best option, minimally invasive surgical procedures can be performed. These surgeries involve tiny incisions and usually require only an overnight stay.
Over time, irritation to the esophagus can cause the normally white lining to stop growing back and to be replaced by a precancerous red one, known as specialized intestinal metaplasia. The condition - Barrett's Esophagus - is being diagnosed in more and more patients and should be taken seriously, doctors say. Physicians estimate that 10 to 12 percent of patients with GERD also have Barrett's Esophagus, which has been linked to a form of cancer called esophageal adenocarcinoma. Though the cancer still is somewhat rare, the incidence definitely is on the rise, increasing fivefold in 30 years. While the risk of developing cancer is seemingly low at 0.5 percent per year in patients who have GERD, the disease often goes undetected until a person is in their 60s and the esophageal lining has been changing for 10 to 20 years. Warning signs including difficult or painful swallowing and other non-specific symptoms such as unexplained weight loss also should mandate evaluation by a physician. The American College of Gastroenterology cites additional risk factors for Barrett's Esophagus including age, male sex, Caucasian ethnicity and GERD symptoms of longer than 10 years.