Nearly everyone has been plagued with heartburn at some point in his or her lifetime. It’s usually the result of eating a greasy bacon cheeseburger or overindulging on family taco night, but it isn’t anything to worry about. Or is it? Occasional heartburn is no cause for concern, but heartburn episodes that increase in frequency or intensity could be part of a much larger problem – gastroesophageal reflux disease.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease, often shortened to GERD, is a digestive condition that is marked by frequent heartburn. GERD is caused by a faulty lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the ring of muscle at the base of your esophagus that allows food and liquids to pass into the stomach and prevents them from escaping upward. In patients who have GERD, the LES does not close properly. This allows gastric juices and undigested food to reflux back into the esophagus and cause that painful, burning sensation known as heartburn.
An estimated 14 to 20 percent of U.S. adults are affected by GERD, and many of them rely on medications such as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) to control their symptoms. PPIs are very effective in managing GERD, but they are linked to other long-term complications. Patients who take PPIs longer than the recommended 14 day course of treatment are subject to risky side effects including bone loss, kidney failure, heart attack, dementia, and vitamin deficiencies.
While heartburn flare-ups are inconvenient and uncomfortable, gastroenterologist Michael P. Jones explains that these symptoms are an important reminder to listen to your body. “Heartburn is your friend,” he wrote in an opinion piece for the L.A. Times, “a harbinger of morbid and mortal events to come” (Source: Medical Daily).
If you currently experience heartburn symptoms more than twice per week, or if you experience other troubling symptoms such as hoarseness, dry cough and difficulty swallowing, schedule an appointment with your doctor. These symptoms could be a sign of a serious underlying condition. Your doctor may refer you for an upper endoscopy to determine the extent of your digestive issues and create a comprehensive treatment plan. With early intervention and the right treatment, you can put a stop to chronic heartburn.