Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) is the severe form of acid reflux. By definition acid reflux is the backflow of stomach acids into the esophagus. This is a very common problem with infants and adults alike. Despite the risk factor involved when untreated, acid reflux or GERD is now considered as a common problem in many societies.
To review, the human digestive system requires gastric juices (stomach acids) to break down food into components easily absorbed into the blood stream. These acids are produced by the liver and pumped directly into the stomach to aid in digestion. The esophagus is composed of soft, smooth muscles that contract to allow pre-digested food into the stomach.
Because the esophagus is very tender a valve called the sphincter — found in the lower tract — opens to admit food into the stomach then closes immediately to stop the reflux of acidic content back into the esophagus. Exposure will lead to a burning sensation in both the chest and throat commonly termed as heartburn – also known as acid reflux.
Acid reflux occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is weakened due to internal or external factors. The LES will open up to admit the content into the stomach for the next phase in chemical digestion. The sphincter will close to stop the occurrence of acid reflux. The weakening of the LES, especially if left untreated, will lead to Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).
Weakened or malfunction of the LES causes stomach acids to flow up into the esophagus causing heartburn — both in the chest and throat. Weakened LES is due to the following factors:
- Eating foods that are high in fatty acids
- Lifestyle (alcohol, smoking, etc.)
The sphincter is known to reduce its efficacy as a barrier between stomach and esophagus as a person ages — often when an individual reaches 60 and above. This is one of the reasons why the elderly are prone to acid reflux, which will eventually lead to GERD. Individuals with good health are also known to suffer minor reflux from time to time that can be cured with a simple antacid.
Dangers of Acid Reflux
Stomach acid, or gastric juice, can cause an inflammation of the esophageal lining. This happens when acid reflux occurs on a frequent basis — usually three times a week or more. Damaged or scarred tissue in the lower esophageal tract may pose swallowing problems that lead to choking — especially in the case of infants and older individuals.
There is a misconception that the occurrence of acid reflux is already the starting symptom of GERD. In truth, GERD will only form when acid reflux occurs on a frequent basis — slowly abrading the esophageal tissues which will eventually lead to inflammation and infections.
Facts about Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) occurs when the lining of the esophagus is abraded by the continuous flow of stomach acid. Slight choking or difficulty in swallowing is due to a swollen esophagus brought about by scarred tissues from reflux exposure. Other symptoms of GERD include:
- swelling of the neck area
- Chest pains (some patients give testimony to a burning sensation in their chest on a frequent basis)
- Frequent occurrence of heartburn
- Frequency of earache
- Voice change with sore throat
- Problem in swallowing solid foods
There are also reports that patients who suffer from GERD are afflicted with a condition known as Barrett’s Esophagus — which entails a discoloration and formation of abnormalities along the esophageal lining. This a common effect of GERD for people who are over 60. If left untreated, this will eventually lead to esophageal cancer — which poses a severe health risk for the elderly.
Severe effects of GERD include:
- Occurrence of ulcer
- Internal bleeding (vomit with traces of blood)
- Muscular spasms
Severe effects like asthma, pneumonia and sinusitis will become a problem when untreated GERD infects the upper esophagus.