Almost everyone has experienced acid reflux, which is commonly known as heartburn. Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid backs up into your esophagus, resulting in symptoms like chest pain, a burning sensation in your throat and a sour taste in your mouth.
GERD vs. Heartburn
An occasional episode of heartburn is normal, but if you’re experiencing heartburn several times a week, you’ll need to see a doctor. Chronic acid reflux is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD. In GERD patients, the lower esophageal sphincter – the ring of muscle that closes off the stomach from the esophagus – does not work properly. This allows digestive acid to enter the esophagus and can cause damage over time. Heartburn is the most common symptom of GERD, but other symptoms may include coughing, wheezing, chest pain, hoarseness, difficulty swallowing and frequent throat clearing and regurgitation.
Over-the-Counter Medications and GERD
Approximately 7 million Americans have GERD, but most people who have it have not been diagnosed. They attribute their discomfort to something they ate or drank and self-medicate with over-the-counter antacids, H-2 blockers or proton-pump inhibitors (PPI). While these medications can help provide immediate relief, they’re only intended for occasional use. PPIs, for example, should not be taken regularly for more than two weeks because of their long-term side effects. Studies have linked PPIs to bone fracture, renal failure, heart attack, dementia, Clostridium difficile (or C. diff) infections and vitamin deficiency.
How Gastroenterologists Help with GERD
The key to treating your GERD: a board-certified gastroenterologist
If you are suffering from chronic acid reflux, a specialist can help. GERD is a potentially serious condition, and it will not go away on its own. Untreated GERD can lead to inflammation of the esophagus and cause complications like ulcers, strictures and increased risk of Barrett’s esophagus, which is a precursor to esophageal cancer.
A gastroenterologist is a physician with specialized training in managing diseases of the gastrointestinal tract (esophagus, stomach, small intestine, colon and rectum, pancreas, gallbladder, bile ducts and liver). Our gastroenterologists are fellowship-trained and qualified to diagnose GERD and help develop a meet your treatment plan.
When to See a Gastroenterologist
Sometimes it’s difficult to know when your symptoms are severe enough that you need to make an appointment with a gastroenterologist, and we understand that. Here are some indications that it’s time to call a gastroenterologist:
- Symptoms that continue for more than two weeks
- Heartburn that persists after taking over-the-counter medications
- Heartburn episodes that change in frequency or intensity
- Nighttime symptoms that affect your sleep quality
- Acid reflux that interferes with your daily activities or affects your quality of life
- Unexplained weight loss or decreased appetite
- Pain or difficulty swallowing
- Heartburn accompanied by nausea or vomiting
- Unexplained weight loss
- Chronic hoarseness or wheezing
If you experience any of the symptoms above, it’s time to see one of our gastroenterologists. After performing a complete medical exam, your gastroenterologist may recommend that you undergo an upper endoscopy to evaluate your symptoms and see if you have suffered any damage to your esophagus, or provide you with the peace of mind that everything is all right. During your visit, the doctor will examine the lining of your esophagus, stomach and duodenum (the first part of your small intestine) to determine the cause of your digestive symptoms and the appropriate treatment.