GERD: what is it?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) sounds very complicated - but it's actually quite simple. Gastro is a medical term that means stomach. Esophagus or esophageal is the medical term referring to the tube that carries food from your throat into your stomach. So gastroesophageal reflux disease is really just a fancy term for a disease that affects your esophagus and your stomach.

But what does reflux mean? Reflux is used to describe the movement of acid (or stomach juices) and food from your stomach back into your esophagus - this is the problem.

Acid or "stomach juices" occur naturally in the stomach and help to digest the food that you eat. But why doesn't the acid hurt your stomach? Your stomach was designed to withstand the acid and is naturally protected from it - although occasionally this protection can fail and an ulcer can develop. But your esophagus was not designed with acid protection in mind. So when stomach acid comes in contact with your esophagus, you feel pain and burning as well as a number of other symptoms. Acid in your esophagus can cause it to become inflamed and can even cause permanent damage.

Why does the acid from your stomach back up into your esophagus? Normally, this doesn't happen. A valve or sphincter at the end of your esophagus where it joins the stomach will normally prevent the contents of the stomach from entering the esophagus. Usually it opens only to let food from your esophagus into your stomach. But if this sphincter opens at the wrong time or does not shut tightly, acid and food from your stomach can end up in your esophagus.

Who gets GERD?

All of us may experience the symptom of heartburn - a rising, burning sensation behind the chest - from time to time. If you are experiencing the symptoms of heartburn two or more times a week you may have GERD. The following are other contributing factors that may make you more susceptible to GERD:

  • hiatus hernia: GERD may be more likely to occur in people with a hiatus hernia - a condition in which a portion of your stomach moves up into your chest through your diaphragm. The presence of part of your stomach in your chest may prevent your esophageal sphincter from closing properly, allowing the contents of your stomach into your esophagus.
  • overweight or pregnancy: If you are overweight or pregnant you have an increased risk of GERD. Both of these conditions can increase the pressure in your abdomen, pushing stomach contents through the esophageal sphincter into your esophagus. These conditions may also contribute to a hiatus hernia.
  • smoking: Studies have shown that smoking puts you at a higher risk of developing GERD because, it's believed, smoking relaxes the esophageal sphincter.
  • diet: A diet high in foods like chocolate, peppermint, fried or fatty foods, coffee, and alcohol, may lead to GERD. These are believed to contribute to the relaxation of the sphincter at the end of the esophagus (lower esophageal sphincter).
  • age: Although GERD can affect people of any age, it is more common after the age of 40, with the majority of sufferers being between the ages of 45 and 64.
  • medications: Some medications can either irritate the esophagus directly or contribute to the relaxation of the esophageal sphincter. People who take these medications are more likely to suffer from GERD. These medications include anti-inflammatory drugs, aspirin, ibuprofen, some antibiotics, iron supplements, theophylline, calcium channel blockers, nitrates, anticholinergics, antidepressants, and progesterone.

The contents of this health site are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition.

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