Suffering from heartburn is never a pleasant experience, but the occasional bout of heartburn after a heavy meal is usually nothing to be concerned about. However, if you are experiencing painful heartburn on a regular basis, you may be suffering from a more serious underlying condition.
What Is Gastroesophaegeal Reflux Disease?
The esophagus is the long tube that connects your mouth and upper throat to your stomach. Heartburn occurs when corrosive stomach acids are ejected from the stomach and into the esophagus. This causes the esophagus's delicate internal lining to become damaged and inflamed, creating the burning sensation that gives heartburn its evocative name.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease, commonly known as GERD, is the medical term for heartburn that occurs frequently, even if you have not eaten or drunk a significant amount. Most gastroenterologists define GERD as mild or moderate heartburn that occurs at least twice a weak, or severe heartburn that occurs at least once a week.
As you can imagine, regular exposure to strong stomach acid can have a damaging effect on your esophagus. Frequent bouts of heartburn caused by GERD can damage the lining of the esophagus and may lead to the formation of painful ulcers. The scarring caused by chronic GERD can also cause the esophagus itself to narrow, making proper digestion of food and drink more difficult.
Your esophagus isn't the only part of your body that can be damaged by GERD. If stomach acids flow up the esophagus and into your mouth, they can erode the enamel that coats your teeth and cause serious dental issues. In rare cases, the long-term cell damage caused by uncontrolled GERD can provoke the formation of cancerous tumors.
What Causes Gastroesophaegeal Reflux Disease?
It is unclear what exactly causes GERD, but most gastroenterologists believe that the problem is caused by a weakened sphincter, the organic 'valve' that opens and closes to allow food and drink to enter the stomach.
This sphincter can be weakened by a hiatal hernia. Hiatal hernias occur when parts of your stomach are shifted out of position, causing them to slip through the gap in your diaphragm and into your lower chest cavity. This shifting can prevent the sphincter from opening and closing correctly, allowing stomach acids to flow into the esophagus.
Obesity has also been linked to GERD, and people who are significantly overweight have been shown to be more vulnerable to GERD.
Is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease Causing Your Heartburn?
If you are suffering from heartburn more than once or twice a week, you should visit a professional gastroenterologist as soon as possible to discuss your symptoms. These specialized stomach doctors can use endoscopes and other tools to determine whether you are suffering from GERD. Other conditions can also cause frequent heartburn, and some of them can be very serious, so getting a professional diagnosis ASAP is always important.
If your heartburn is caused by GERD, your gastroenterologist can offer a range of treatments to alleviate the symptoms and prevent future bouts of heartburn. They may place you on a controlled diet to encourage weight loss and/or have you avoid specific foods that provoke heartburn. They can also prescribe medications, such as proton pump inhibitors, that reduce the amount of acid inside your stomach.