Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

A condition in which the stomach contents back up into the esophagus, causing heartburn and other symptoms. Food passes from the throat to the stomach via the esophagus. Normally, a ring of muscle fibers called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) keeps swallowed food from moving back up again. If this sphincter fails to close properly, the contents of the stomach can leak back into the esophagus, causing unpleasant symptoms such as heartburn, chest pain, a feeling of food being stuck behind the breastbone and nausea after eating.

It also can cause coughing, wheezing, sore throat and hoarseness. GERD may cause serious complications, including esophageal ulcers, bleeding and scarring, as well as Barrett’s esophagus, a condition that can increase the risk of esophageal cancer.

Some lifestyle changes may help. Obesity is a risk factor for GERD, so losing excess weight can help alleviate symptoms. Decreasing meal portions and scheduling meals at least two hours before bedtime may be useful. GERD may also be treated with over-the-counter or prescription H2 blockers or proton pump inhibitors, which can relieve symptoms by reducing the amount of acid in the stomach. If these measures fail, surgery may be useful. A surgical procedure called fundoplication may increase pressure in the lower esophagus. Endoscopic procedures are used to make the LES function better.

Robert S. Dinsmoor is a medical writer and editor based in Massachusetts.

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