Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease—Overview

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Heartburn is a burning sensation behind the breastbone. It is caused by many different conditions. However, periodic heartburn does not mean there is a problem. Chronic heartburn, with or without other digestive symptoms more than 2 times per week for several weeks, may indicate gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Acid reflux irritates the esophagus, which can cause permanent damage over the course of time.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
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The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is a muscular ring between the esophagus and the stomach. It relaxes to let food pass into the stomach, then closes shut to prevent it from backing up. Certain conditions can keep this muscle from closing completely, which allows acid to flow upward, causing heartburn.

These conditions may include:

  • Problems with the nerves that control the LES
  • Problems with LES muscle tone
  • Impaired peristalsis—muscular contractions that propel food toward the stomach
  • Abnormal pressure on the LES
  • Increased relaxation of the LES
  • Increased pressure within the abdomen
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Risk Factors

Factors that may increase your chance of chronic heartburn or GERD include:

  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol use
  • Exercising or strenuous activity immediately after eating
  • Lying down, bending over, or straining after eating
  • Pregnancy
  • Prior surgery for heartburn
  • Diabetes
  • Scleroderma
  • Certain nervous system disorders
  • In-dwelling nasogastric tube

Foods and drinks that may cause symptoms include:

  • Caffeinated products
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Citrus fruits
  • Chocolate
  • Fried foods
  • Spicy foods
  • Foods made with tomatoes, such as pizza, chili, or spaghetti sauce

Medications and supplements that cause symptoms may include:

  • Anticholinergics
  • Calcium channel blockers
  • Theophylline, bronchial inhalers, and other asthma medications
  • Nitrates
  • Sildenafil
  • Bisphosphonates


Heartburn and other digestive symptoms usually occur after overeating or lying down after a big meal. The symptoms may last for a few minutes or a few hours.

Common symptoms may include:

  • Burning feeling that starts in the lower chest and moves up the throat—most common symptom
  • Regurgitation—a feeling that food is coming back up
  • Sour or bitter taste in the throat
  • Burping
  • Bloating

The regular reflux of stomach acid can cause irritation of the tissue and other structures of the throat. This irritation can lead to other symptoms, such as:

  • Sore throat
  • Hoarseness
  • Chronic laryngitis
  • Chronic cough
  • Feeling of a lump in the throat
  • Waking up with a sensation of choking
  • Difficulty swallowing

Long-term complications of GERD may include:

  • Inflammation and scarring of the esophagus—esophagitis
  • Bleeding and ulcers in the esophagus
  • Narrowing of the esophagus—esophageal stricture
  • Dental problems, which may occur because of the effect of stomach acid on tooth enamel
  • Asthma attacks
  • During sleep, acid refluxes from the stomach into the throat, then drains into the lungs—aspiration pneumonia
  • Vomiting blood
  • Black or tarry stools
  • Precancerous condition that can lead to esophageal cancer—Barrett's esophagus
  • Esophageal cancer

When Should I Call My Doctor?

It is common to experience heartburn occasionally. If you have heartburn at least 2 times per week, make an appointment to see your doctor. Call your doctor if you have any complications from chronic heartburn.

When Should I Call for Emergency Medical Services?

The muscles of the esophagus can tighten or spasm. This can cause pain that radiates through the chest and back, similar to how a heart attack may feel. Do not assume that chest pain is an esophageal spasm.

If you have chest pains or other symptoms of a possible heart attack, call for emergency medical services right away:

  • Squeezing or chest pressure
  • Pain in the left shoulder, left arm, or jaw
  • Trouble breathing
  • Sweating, clammy skin
  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Pain that starts during activity or stress
  • Feeling of impending doom


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Your doctor may be able to make a diagnosis based on your symptoms. Your doctor may also take x-rays (using contrast material) of your esophagus or stomach with an upper GI series . A biopsy of your esophagus may be taken. A biopsy is a tissue sample that is examined under a microscope. This is often done during an endoscopy .

Other tests may include:

  • 24-hour pH monitoring—a probe is placed in the esophagus to keep track of the acid in the lower esophagus
  • Manometry to test muscle strength in the lower esophagus
  • Short trial of medications—success or failure of medication may help your doctor understand the cause


Talk to your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment will depend the cause of the heartburn. Treatment focuses on preventing symptoms from occurring and healing any damage to the esophagus.

Lifestyle Changes

To help decrease chronic heartburn symptoms:

  • Keep a food diary of what you eat and what the reaction is. Make gradual changes to your diet and record the results.
  • Avoid foods and drinks that trigger digestive symptoms.
  • Eat smaller portions.
  • Allow at least 2-3 hours between meals and lying down, and exercise.
  • If you are overweight, your doctor will advise you how to safely lose weight.
  • If you smoke, your doctor will tell you how to successfully quit.
  • Avoid alcohol or drink in moderation. Moderation is 1-2 drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
  • Avoid belts and clothing that are too tight. This increases pressure on the abdomen.
  • Elevate head of your bed 6-8 inches.


Medication may help relieve symptoms and repair any damage to the esophagus. Many prescription heartburn medications are available over-the-counter. Your doctor may recommend.

  • Proton-pump inhibitors
  • H-2 blockers
  • Antacids


Surgery may be an option if symptoms are severe, other treatment methods fail, or medication cannot be tolerated. Surgical treatments include:


The most common surgery for GERD is fundoplication . The doctor wraps the stomach around the esophagus. This creates pressure on the muscle at the opening to the stomach. This can be done as an open or laparoscopic procedure.

Endoscopic Antireflux Procedures

A lighted device called an endoscope is inserted through the mouth and down the esophagus. Many procedures can be done using endoscopy to decrease the backward flow of stomach acid into the esophagus. One example is transoral incisionless fundoplication (TIF). With TIF, fasteners are used to reshape the upper part of the stomach, tightening the LES muscle.

LINX Reflux Management System

LINX is a small band with magnetic beads made from titanium. Laparoscopic surgery is used to place the band around the end of the esophagus where it meets the stomach. This band helps support LES function. When the LES should be closed, the magnetic beads are attracted together. Pressure from swallowed food or drink pushes the beads apart, allowing entry into the stomach.

Some people will be able to stop taking medications after surgery. Others may need less medication, or may experience significant relief from other symptoms of GERD.

Some people will be able to stop taking medications after surgery. Others may need less medication, or may experience significant relief from other symptoms of GERD.


There are no current guidelines to prevent GERD/heartburn.


  • EBSCO Medical Review BoardDaus Mahnke, MD
  • Reviewed: 03/2017
  • Updated: 07/09/2015

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