What to do when heartburn is actually GERD

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It’s normal for people to have occasional acid reflux, particularly as they age. That awful burning when stomach acid flows up the esophagus is uncomfortable but not a problem if it occurs only every so often. However, heartburn that occurs frequently, doesn’t respond to antacids, or interferes with a person’s quality of life is more serious. 

Doctors call acid reflux GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease) when it becomes a clinical problem. I help patients with GERD nearly every day in my practice. It’s an extremely common condition and one patients don’t just have to suffer with. Using a combination of therapies, it’s almost always possible to get GERD under control. Here are some of the strategies I suggest:

• Manage weight. One of the main risk factors of being diagnosed with GERD is obesity. Extra body weight puts pressure on the abdomen, which physically forces stomach contents up. A modest loss of 10 or 20 pounds can make a big difference.

• Cut out trigger foods. Foods that are high in fat, grease, and spice can increase reflux symptoms. Pizza, hot wings, chili, tomato-based foods, grapefruit, coffee, and chocolate are some of the foods best avoided.

• Sleep at an incline. Sleeping on a wedge pillow raises the chest throughout the night. Gravity makes it less likely that acid will come back up the esophagus.

• Try medications. Proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) reduce acid levels in the stomach and are one of the most widely prescribed medications available. An early study raised alarm bells about taking PPIs long-term. However, new studies show that that are generally safe. They many even reduce the risk of complications from GERD by preventing acid damage in some individuals.

• Surgery. In very rare cases, surgery may be used to strengthen the sphincter that keeps stomach contents from refluxing into the esophagus.

If you’ve been struggling with reflux, I encourage you to make an appointment with your primary care physician to discuss how to manage your symptoms given your unique health history. Your doctor will be able to walk you through these strategies in more depth and answer questions. Your doctor can also refer you to a gastroenterologist who can help with further evaluation and management. With so many solutions for GERD there’s no reason to put up with being uncomfortable.

 

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