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Your stomach is a special place: To digest food, it needs to be so acidic that just a drop of stomach acid eats through wood. Your stomach is lined with special cells to protect you from that acid, but the rest of your body isn’t.
That includes your esophagus, a tube about eight inches long that connects your throat and stomach. Usually, a special muscle at the bottom of your esophagus closes off, so stomach acid cannot flow back up your throat. When that muscle fails, the acid irritates the inside of your esophagus, causing it to swell up.
A few bouts of acid reflux, over time, aren’t usually a big deal for your body to repair. However, repeated acid reflux can be trouble. If you experience minor pain at least twice a week, or moderate to severe pain once a week, it’s time to find out if you have gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. If not managed well, GERD can leave lasting, more serious damage.
The Long-Term Effects of GERD
Repeated acid reflux can lead to plenty of different problems, but they generally have the same cause: damage from escaped stomach acid. Here are some of the potential issues:
- Barrett's esophagus. If they’re exposed to years of acid reflux, the cells in your esophagus can start to change. This doesn’t cause symptoms but puts you at higher risk for esophageal cancer.
- Esophageal cancer. There are thousands of new cases of esophageal cancer diagnosed in the U.S. each year, and many are caused by GERD
- Esophagitis. When your esophagus is irritated by stomach acid, it can swell up, causing you temporary pain and difficulty swallowing. However, if your GERD is left untreated, scar tissue can build up, causing your esophagus to narrow permanently.
- Tooth decay. If acid from your stomach reaches your mouth, it can wear away at your teeth. For people who don’t experience pain, tooth decay is often the first symptom of GERD.
To be clear, a few months of heartburn is unlikely to cause cancer. It usually takes many years of damage before cancer is a risk. But heartburn is a problem that too many people easily dismiss.
As with many cancers, diagnosing esophageal cancer early is critical. When cancer is found before it spreads beyond the esophagus, an estimated 43% of patients are alive five years later. However, if it spreads to nearby tissues, the survival rate declines to 23% — and, when it spreads to other organs, further drops to 5%.
These statistics can be scary, but the good news is that esophageal cancer forms slowly, and we have the tools to stop the acid reflux that causes it.
How to Best Care for Your GERD
Your first line of defense against GERD is to change the foods or behaviors that cause your acid reflux. For some people, that may mean making one or more of the following lifestyle changes, according to the National Institutes of Health:
- Avoiding spicy and greasy foods
- Losing weight if you’re carrying extra pounds
- Quitting smoking
- Staying upright after meals
- Taking care not to overeat or eat, especially before bedtime
- Wearing loose clothing (tight clothes squeeze your stomach and can push acid out)
There are also many medications for GERD including:
- Antacids: Because they act quickly, are available without a prescription and are inexpensive, antacids like Tums, Mylanta and Rolaids are the most common treatment for heartburn. They work by weakening your stomach acid, robbing it of the ability to burn your esophagus.
- Histamine-2 Blockers: Medicines like Zantac work differently, by decreasing the amount of acid your stomach produces. These are available both over-the-counter and by prescription.
- Proton Pump Inhibitors: While these medications take longer to take effect, proton pump inhibitors like Prevacid and Prilosec can provide longer relief.
If medications and lifestyle changes don’t provide relief, your doctor may suggest surgery.
“Since there are multiple effective, minimally invasive surgical treatments available for acid reflux, there is no reason a patient should be suffering with the symptoms of acid reflux long-term,” says Naga Thatimatla, MD, a board-certified general surgeon who specializes in bariatric surgery.
“I recommend people discuss these surgical options with their health care providers in case their symptoms are not well-controlled with medications and lifestyle changes, or if there have been dependent on medications for acid reflux for many years.”
A New Way to Treat Acid Reflux With LINX®
Our digestive health specialists are here to help you heal faster and experience less pain as you recover using the latest technology and minimally invasive techniques. If you have GERD, there’s a less invasive surgical treatment that can help. The LINX® Reflux Management System can get rid of the symptoms caused by GERD.
This system uses a small, flexible band of titanium magnets that are surgically implanted around the outside of your Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES), which helps prevent stomach acid from entering your esophagus. These titanium beads are designed to open and close to let food down and back up. This minimally invasive solution allows many patients to return home the day of surgery and resume a normal diet shortly after the procedure.
We’ll help you find a permanent solution, so you can stop relying on antacid medications and find lasting relief.
Finding a Doctor is More Important Now Than Ever Before
Even if you’ve been living with GERD for some time, it’s more important than ever to manage your condition well for long-term health and wellness.
It’s also crucial that you stay in touch with your doctor and share any changes in your condition or health. When in-person visits are essential, please know that we’re doing everything we can to protect you, your loved ones and our medical teams from COVID-19. New safety protocols are in place, including:
- Social distancing to keep everyone six feet apart
- Temperature screening for patients, visitors and staff at all entrances
- Universal mask use for every person in our facilities
In addition to these aggressive safety measures, we’re also using newer technologies to help you feel more comfortable getting care. From text alerts that allow you to wait in your car to virtual telehealth appointment
We’re Here to Help You Find Lasting Relief
If you’re living with GERD or uncomfortable symptoms, don’t suffer alone any longer. You can count on us to prioritize your peace of mind, your health and your safety. We’re here to do everything possible to help you feel at ease while treating your condition to bring lasting relief.
Our Bariatric and Digestive Health Navigator will be with you during every step of your wellness journey. Her complimentary services include helping you find a physician, communicating with your doctors and scheduling appointments. She is here to provide the support you need to find relief and feel whole again.