Millions of Americans suffer from gastoesophageal reflux disease, an illness that causes stomach acid to reflux into the esophagus, resulting in heartburn and other very uncomfortable symptoms. While GERD sufferers may feel intense pain at times, the illness is not life-threatening. However, over time GERD can lead to more serious health problems, including esophageal cancer.
GERD is usually caused by a malfunction or weakening of the lower esophageal sphincter. This is the valve that separates the food pipe from the stomach. When the lower esophageal sphincter isn't working properly, stomach acid can reflux into the esophagus, causing an irritation of the esophageal lining that results in heartburn and other possible symptoms such as vomiting and difficulty swallowing. Hiatal hernias can often be the root of the problem. When a person has a hiatal hernia, part of his or her stomach moves through an opening in the diaphragm into the chest. This can cause a weakening of the lower esophageal sphincter and can cause a retention of stomach acid in the area above the opening.
Also contributing to GERD are overproduction of stomach acid and underproduction of saliva, which acts as a neutralizer to stomach acid.
The symptoms of GERD are painful and unpleasant, but not life-threatening. However, recent studies have found that over time, GERD can contribute to some very serious health problems, especially in older patients.
Esophagitis occurs when the lining of the esophagus' lower end, known as the gullet, becomes inflamed. In most cases, esophagitis is the result of stomach acid frequently moving into the lower esophagus. This is the main characteristic of GERD, so it's no surprise that half of all people with GERD also have esophagitis.
Esophagitis shares many symptoms with GERD, and the illness can significantly impact the patient's quality of life for the worse. Common symptoms of esophagitis include: a burning sensation in the chest after the consumption of foods such as eggs, high fat foods, bacon and citrus juice, regurgitation during the night, when the patient is asleep, a scarred ulcerated esophagus that makes eating and drinking difficult to bear.
Esophagitis is generally treated by many of the same drugs used to treat GERD. Proton pump inhibitors, which reduce the production of stomach acid, are of particular interest, as they are often very effective in treating esophagitis.
Barrett's esophagus is a condition in which the cells of the esophagus change their color and composition because of frequent exposure to stomach acid. Because GERD exposes the esophagus to stomach acid, folks with GERD are at an elevated risk of developing the condition, even though a relatively small number of them ever do. Older adults, whites and Hispanics are also at an increased risk of developing the condition.
Barrett's esophagus is tough to spot, and is usually only diagnosed when folks come to a medical professional complaining of GERD symptoms. Endoscopy and tissue sample testing are the primary means of diagnosing Barrett's esophagus. The condition is potentially a precursor to esophageal cancer, so detecting it early gives you and your doctors an early warning that you may develop esophageal cancer later.
Treatments for particularly troubling cases of Barrett's esophagus include burning off abnormal cells, removing the esophagus, regular GERD treatments and endoscopic surgery.
Esophageal cancer is a life-threatening illness that could be linked to GERD. Nearly one third of all esophageal cancer is related to GERD, according to a recent medical study. Research shows a strong correlation between the two, indicating that longstanding GERD can contribute to cellular damage that can result in cancer.
The odds aren't good for people diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Each year more than 14,000 Americans are diagnosed with the disease and a little more than 13,000 will die of the illness. Esophageal cancer predominately impacts men, particularly those over the age of 50. Taking care of your GERD could potentially save your life.
Mitigating or eliminating GERD can reduce your risk of developing this deadly disease. GERD can be treated with a variety of lifestyle modifications, medications and, in some cases surgery. Getting rid of your GERD, or, at the very least, reducing the amount of stomach acid refluxing into your esophagus, can reduce your risk of esophageal cancer. Getting GERD under control quickly won't just reduce your risk of cancer, however, it will also greatly improve the quality of your life as you eliminate or lessen the painful symptoms of GERD.