You thought it was the spicy food, but now you've noticed that you get heartburn any time you eat. You may be dealing with a case of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, and a couple of antacid tablets won't do you much good. This is a painful condition that can lead to cancer of the esophagus. It's time to find a gastroenterologist in your area and get examined. Treatment will prevent worsening of this problem and serious damage to your health.
Short-Term Affects of GERD
Between your esophagus and stomach is a small muscular valve that opens and closes to let food into your stomach and prevents the stomach contents from coming back out. When this valve fails, stomach acid can make its way back up into the esophagus. The acid burns the sensitive lining of the esophagus, causing the uncomfortable sensation that you call heartburn. The valve is also damaged by the stomach acid, causing it to fail more often, and eventually each time you eat. You end up with heartburn at every meal, regardless of what you eat.
The Serious Consequences of Long-Term GERD
As the stomach acid continues to eat away at the esophagus lining, you can develop ulcers and bleeding. Antacid tablets no longer give you any relief. You will have difficulty swallowing and the pain is the same whether you're sitting, standing or lying down. The cells in the irritated portion of your esophagus may begin to develop abnormally and produce cancer cells.
The gastroenterologist will do X-rays and blood tests to identify GERD. An endoscopy will be performed in which a small tube with a camera on the end is passed down your esophagus. Your doctor will be able to see the damage directly and determine how severe it is. Treatment depends on how much damage there is to your esophagus and whether cancerous cells have begun to develop.
If the condition has not reached the cancerous stage, your doctor will suggest a number of non-invasive approaches to treating your GERD such as
- Diet changes - The goal is to minimize the amount of stomach acid produced. This includes avoiding highly acidic and spicy foods, and limiting coffee, tea and alcohol.
- Preventative medicine - Your doctor will give you prescription medications to take regularly, not just at mealtimes, to reduce the amount of stomach acid produced.
- Lifestyle changes - You'll be more comfortable by eating smaller portions, avoiding snacks between meals, increasing the amount of water you drink with meals and eating several hours before you go to bed. Sleeping with your head elevated may reduce symptoms so they don't disturb your sleep.
When the damage to the esophagus is severe, or you show signs of cancer cells in the area, surgery will be required:
- Repair of the valve - The muscular valve can be repaired or replaced to restrict the leaking of stomach acid.
- Removal of tissue - The part of your esophagus showing cancer cells can be removed. Radiation or chemotherapy may be recommended after the surgery.
Early diagnosis and treatment of GERD will keep you from needing surgery and reduce your risk of developing cancer in your esophagus. For more information, find a gastroenterologist.