Conditions InDepth: Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)/Heartburn
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a digestive disorder. With GERD, stomach acid or other stomach contents frequently back up into the esophagus. The esophagus is a tube that runs from the back of the mouth to the stomach. The stomach acid irritates the esophagus and can create permanent damage over time.
The occasional back up of fluids is common and often called acid reflux or heartburn. GERD is the frequent occurrence of these symptoms, more than twice per week over several weeks. GERD will also have evidence of damage from the acid reflux.
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A ring of muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) manages the flow of food from the esophagus to the stomach. The LES relaxes to let food pass into the stomach then closes shut to help keep contents in the stomach. Sometimes the LES does not close properly or relaxes at inappropriate moments. This allows stomach acid and other contents to frequently pass back into the esophagus.
The stomach acid irritates the esophagus. It may contribute to breathing difficulties such as wheezing or congestion and damage to the voice. Overtime this irritation wears away the lining of the esophagus and can lead to complications such as bleeding, narrowing, or inflammation of the esophagus. The damage may also increase the risk of developing Barrett's esophagus.
- Daus Mahnke, MD
- Reviewed: 03/2014
- Updated: 02/26/2015
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