Contracted a case of heartburn? Sometimes overlooked as higher abdominal pain, heartburn is a burning sensation felt in the chest due to acid reflux. Acid reflux is commonly experienced by many, perhaps after the intake of spicy or fried food. If this is recurrent, there is a possibility that you might have contracted a digestive disorder known as GERD.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) is a chronic condition caused by the weakening of the lower oesophageal sphincter (LES). This muscle acts as the gateway and regulates food entering the stomach from the oesophagus. In the case where the LES has weakened or relaxes abnormally, this allows your stomach contents to re-enter the oesophagus. And why does this pose a danger? That’s because acidic juices from your stomach could flow into the oesophagus, leading to frequent acid reflux, possible GERD symptoms and complications.
GERD symptoms you might experience
More than 15 million adults experience heartburn every day. Hence, the possibility of chest pains due to GERD may be higher than expected. But besides heartburn, these are a couple of symptoms you might also experience after meals or when you lie down:
- Acidic/bitter taste in the mouth
- Hoarseness of voice
- Persistent coughing
- Discomfort when swallowing
- Shortness of breath
- Bloated tummy
If these symptoms are left untreated, long term complications might arise. For instance, frequent dispulsion of acid up the oesophagus can lead to scarring and narrowing of the oesophagus. This narrowing restricts your food pathway and causes problems with swallowing. There’s also a possibility of Barrett’s oesophagus: a mutation of the oesophagus lining which leaves the patient at risk of oesophageal cancer.
Lifestyle changes to manage GERD
Fortunately, upon diagnosis of GERD, you could make some lifestyle changes to prevent long term complications of GERD. Dietary changes include reducing intake of food that may trigger acid reflux (e.g. fatty or spicy food), eating at least four hours before bedtime and having smaller meals. In addition, consider adopting a more active lifestyle – reduce any smoking habits and lose excess weight with regular exercise.
Besides dietary changes, consider raising the head of your bed or sleep on your left side. These changes can help to lessen the acid reflux movement. However, be sure to avoid putting pressure on the stomach with uncomfortable sleeping wear or habits.
Treatment for long term GERD symptoms
If your symptoms do not improve with lifestyle changes, it’s best to see a doctor. Your doctor might prescribe antacids to neutralise the acid temporarily, or some acid blocker medication to reduce the production of acids. Although the latter has been proven to be more effective, it may take a few days to be observe the effects.
And finally, if these short-term medications don’t prove to be helpful, your doctor would refer you to a gastroenterologist. The gastroenterologist may then decide to order a gastroscopy, sometimes referred to as an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy, to examine the inflammation in the oesophagus and conclude the severity of your reflux disease.
An alternative to the gastroscopy would be a 24-hour pH study, measuring the amount of reflux you have within 24 hours. The results from the study will help your gastroenterologist confirm the acid reflux and determine the efficacy of the treatment that is optimal for your recovery. But, whether you go ahead with a gastroscopy or the reflux study, a long term follow-up would be crucial in managing the GERD symptoms.
Knowing the symptoms of GERD is the first step in steering away from long term symptoms and complications. Most of the symptoms can be managed through lifestyle changes, especially if you seek treatment early. As such, if you’re experiencing chest pain, it’s time to be on the lookout for other symptoms that could point to a case of GERD.