This overview guide to acid reflux will help you in understanding what is acid reflux and how to treat it effectively.
If you’re wanting to know what is acid reflux and how to treat it effectively, this guide provides all the useful information you need on symptoms, diagnosis, prognosis and treatment.Acid reflux, also called gastroesophageal reflux, occurs when some of your stomach acid rises up into the esophagus. This happens because the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a muscle that closes in order to keep the contents of the stomach from rising, can sometimes relax and allow the acid to leak upward. Occasional acid reflux is a common and annoying problem. However, extremely frequent or severe acid reflux can be a sign of a more serious condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) that warrants a visit to your doctor.
If you’re wanting to know what is acid reflux and how to treat it effectively, this guide provides all the useful information you need on symptoms, diagnosis, prognosis and treatment.
Acid reflux, also called gastroesophageal reflux, occurs when some of your stomach acid rises up into the esophagus. This happens because the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a muscle that closes in order to keep the contents of the stomach from rising, can sometimes relax and allow the acid to leak upward. Occasional acid reflux is a common and annoying problem. However, extremely frequent or severe acid reflux can be a sign of a more serious condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) that warrants a visit to your doctor.
The American College of Gastroenterology estimates that 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month, so infrequent heartburn isn’t a cause for concern. If your acid reflux occurs more than twice a week or is so painful that it interferes with your daily life, however, it may be a sign of GERD. GERD reflux can be so severe that the burning in your esophagus actually gives you a sore throat, a hoarse cough or difficulty swallowing. The sphincter may relax so far that it releases some solids along with the acid, giving you a taste of regurgitated food along with the sour taste of stomach acid or causing you to vomit slightly. You may even have difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) or feel a lump in your throat because of scar tissue that has developed in your esophagus from the constant irritation of stomach acid. Call your doctor if you notice these symptoms as they will know what is acid reflux and how to treat it effectively.
Because infrequent, mild heartburn isn’t serious and can be treated with over-the-counter medications and home remedies, a formal diagnosis of occasional acid reflux isn’t necessary. However, if you suspect that your reflux may be a sign of GERD, call your doctor for testing.
Your doctor may be able to diagnose you with GERD simply from hearing your symptoms, or she may need to conduct additional tests to make sure that your discomfort is caused by GERD instead of another disease, so they can correctly identify what is acid reflux and how to treat it effectively. One possible test is an X-ray of your esophagus, which can also be called a barium swallow or upper GI series. The doctor will ask you to swallow a chalky substance called a liquid barium mixture or barium meal. The barium coats your digestive tract, allowing your doctor to use a fluoroscope or X-ray to observe your esophagus, stomach and upper intestine as you digest the barium.
Another option is an endoscopy, which is a bit like a colonoscopy for your esophagus. The doctor will insert a thin, flexible tube with a light and camera into your throat, letting him examine the esophagus and stomach. He may also take a biopsy if he’s concerned that the reflux is a symptom of a more serious problem, such as esophageal cancer.
A third option is ambulatory pH monitoring, also called ambulatory acid monitoring. The doctor inserts a small monitor into your esophagus, either by putting it at the tip of an endoscopy tube or by threading a catheter through your nose and into your throat. The monitor can measure several things, including the amount of acid you regurgitate in 24 hours and the amount of pressure in your esophagus. The doctor may ask you to wear a small computer clipped to your waist or shoulder that will receive the data transmitted by the monitor.
Most people with acid reflux find that a combination of acid reflux medication and lifestyle changes relieves their symptoms. In the case of GERD, these may be prescription acid reflux meds that must be taken daily, rather than the over-the-counter medications that typical heartburn patients take as needed. In rare cases, surgery may be necessary to treat severe GERD.
Once you know what is acid reflux and how to treat it effectively you should take action when necessary. In the case of GERD, if it is left untreated it can lead to permanent shrinking of the esophagus due to scar tissue or even to a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, a change in the esophageal lining that can eventually lead to cancer. Prompt medical care is essential for a healthy outcome.
If you suffer from occasional reflux, you can alleviate your symptoms through a variety of lifestyle changes and over-the-counter acid reflux medication. One of the best-known lifestyle changes is to alter your diet, as certain foods are more likely to cause heartburn than others are. Spicy and acidic foods, such as citrus fruits and tomatoes, can irritate the lining of your stomach and oesophagus. Peppermints, chocolate and alcohol can relax the sphincter muscles and make you more prone to reflux, while fatty foods and carbonated beverages can overfill your stomach and push back against the lower sphincter until it opens. Avoid these foods if you’re prone to heartburn, especially before bed.
A less known lifestyle remedy for reflux is losing weight. Pregnant women know that the extra weight and mass in their growing abdomens can push the stomach up toward your esophagus, causing heartburn; the same thing happens to a lesser extent with people who are overweight or obese. Eating smaller meals, regardless of whether or not you do it to lose weight, can also help with reflux because an emptier stomach does not push against the oesophagus. If you tend to have reflux at night, try sleeping in an elevated position by propping yourself up on pillows. Gravity will help pull the acid into your stomach.
After understanding what is acid reflux and how to treat it effectively using lifestyle changes, you might realise this does not work for you. If this is the case, you might find relief with over-the-counter heartburn medications. Antacids can help neutralize stomach acid and are effective for occasional heartburn. If you have more frequent or serious reflux, however, they can’t provide long-term relief or heal a damaged oesophagus. Antacids have magnesium, calcium or aluminum as a main ingredient; magnesium-based brands can cause diarrhea, while calcium- and magnesium-based brands can lead to constipation, so try another brand if you have unpleasant side effects.
Other over-the-counter acid reflux meds include H2 blockers, also called H2 receptor antagonists, and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). These drugs work by actually causing your stomach to produce less acid, which gives longer-term relief of reflux and can give a damaged esophagus time to heal. Popular H2 blockers include Pepcid, Zantac, Tagamet and Axid, while over the counter PPI brands include Prilosec, Prevacid and Zegerid. In general, H2 blockers start working faster, while PPIs last longer once you take them.
Now that you have an understanding of what is acid reflux and how to treat it effectively when it is only occasional, we are going to list the treatments for GERD. Lifestyle changes, H2 blockers and PPIs can be beneficial to people who suffer from GERD as well, although antacids generally don’t do enough to solve the underlying causes of the condition. If you’ve changed your lifestyle and have to take H2 receptors or PPIs for more than two weeks, however, you need a stronger treatment for acid reflux. Prescription-strength H2 blockers and PPIs may be effective. According to the American College of Gastroenterologists, these H2 blockers can cure symptoms in 50 percent of GERD patients and allow for total healing of the esophagus in 25 percent, while six to eight weeks of PPIs can completely heal damage to the esophagus in 75 percent to 100 percent of patients. It is important to note that these acid reflux meds do not cure the underlying causes of GERD, so the symptoms can recur if you stop taking them.
A less common acid reflux medication that is sometimes prescribed for GERD is a prokinetic or promotility agent. These medications work by strengthening the lower esophageal sphincter itself, making it less likely to relax and release stomach acid. They are not as effective as prescription H2 blockers and PPIs when used alone, but can boost the effectiveness of those medications. Promotility agents are linked with serious side effects, including fatigue and confusion, and some varieties have even been banned by the FDA for links to heart problems, so they are generally only used as a last resort.
In most cases, these medications completely alleviate the symptoms of GERD. However, if you find they do not help you, or if your reflux leads to serious symptoms such as bleeding or extreme tightening of the esophagus, there are surgical options available to treat GERD. The most common surgical option is fundoplication and involves wrapping the upper part of the stomach around the lower esophageal sphincter to strengthen it. The procedure is safe and effective, often allowing patients to leave the hospital in one to three days and return to work in two to three weeks.
Some newer surgeries have recently been approved by the FDA, although there haven’t been any long-term studies on their effectiveness or safety. A magnetic device called Linx puts magnetic beads in the sphincter, helping it to close, while the Bard EndoCinch and Stretta systems put stitches or tiny scars in the sphincter to help strengthen it. A non-surgical alternative called Enteryx has also been approved; this system involves injecting a spongy material into the sphincter during an endoscopy, strengthening it and helping it to hold back stomach acid.
GERD can be a painful and even potentially dangerous condition, but if you’ve read our guide on what is acid reflux and how to treat it effectively, you will realise that there are many types of treatment for acid reflux which are at your fingertips, giving you the optimal chance for a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle.
Discover top tips for a healthy body and mind with our weekly wellbeing newsletter.
Join our mailing list today.