By Beth Richmond

Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, happens when stomach acid flows backward, or refluxes, into the esophagus. The acid aggravates the lining of the esophagus, causing specific symptoms.

1. GERD is caused by a closing of the lower esophageal sphincter muscle, which is located between the esophagus and stomach. The closing pulls acid away from the stomach and pushes it back into the esophagus. The constant refluxing of acid inflames the lining of the esophagus and erodes it over time.

2. Heartburn is a common symptom of GERD. Other symptoms include hoarseness, dental problems, stomach discomfort, and chest pain. Constant acid reflux may lead to serious complications, such as esophageal ulcers and Barrett’s esophagus.

3. Acidic foods and beverages usually trigger GERD symptoms, such as tomato sauce, orange juice, coffee, chocolate, and onions.

4. Pregnant women are at greater risk for developing GERD due to increased pressure on the stomach as the baby grows.

5. Doctors perform two tests to diagnose GERD. The first is a barium swallow test where the patient ingests a contrast dye and x-rays are taken. The second test is an endoscopy where a thin tube with a camera is inserted down a sedated patient’s throat to examine the esophagus.

6. Over-the-counter heartburn medications, such as Pepcid AC or Prilosec, are prescribed to treat GERD. Lifestyle changes are also advised, such as avoiding acidic foods, eating smaller meals, walking 10 minutes after every meal, drinking plenty of water throughout the day to aid digestion, and reducing stress through meditation. If medications and lifestyle changes are unsuccessful, then surgery is indicated.

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