Our body produces a variety of fluids that work to break down and digest food. The role of stomach acid, or gastric acid, is to break down proteins by activating digestive enzymes. These enzymes are produced by the pancreas and stomach and are recruited when there is food present in our gut.
Gastric acid is extremely powerful and is vital for breaking down the food we eat every day and extracting nutrients from it. Sometimes, stomach acid makes its way into the esophagus causing a variety of uncomfortable symptoms. This is known as Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) and affects about 20% of the U.S. population.
Between the esophagus and stomach, there is a valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). Normally, the LES closes as soon as food passes through it. When it does not close all the way or if it opens too often, stomach acid can move up into the esophagus. If this happens more than twice a week over a long period of time, it becomes GERD.
The symptoms that can occur are an acidic taste in the mouth, heartburn, or even regurgitation. GERD can be caused by a stomach abnormality called a hiatal hernia. This occurs when the upper part of the stomach and the LES move above the diaphragm. The diaphragm helps keep acid in our stomach and this upward shift allows acid to move into the esophagus.
If left untreated, GERD can lead to a number of complications such as hoarseness, laryngitis, and sleep disturbance. Hoarseness is an abnormally deep or harsh voice that may sound raspy, scratchy, breathy, or strained. It is usually the result of irritation to the vocal cords, which can be caused by the reflux of acid into the esophagus. GERD can also lead to laryngitis, the swelling and irritation of the larynx, which often is accompanied by hoarseness. Due to the horizontal position of sleeping, a case of reflux may actually allow stomach contents to rise as far back as the mouth, causing sleep disturbance.
In addition to these complications, untreated GERD can cause the more serious conditions of esophagitis, Barrett’s esophagus, and esophageal cancer. About 10% to 15% of people with chronic GERD develop Barrett’s esophagus. This occurs when the normal cells of the esophagus are replaced with cells similar to those of the intestine, increasing the risk of esophageal cancer.
Complications associated with chronic GERD can be avoided in many ways. Some people reduce their GERD symptoms just through lifestyle and diet changes.
You may be able to control GERD on your own by:
Over-the-counter medicines such as antacids and H2 blockers can reduce GERD symptoms, but, if these don’t work, prescription medication or surgery may be necessary. If you experience minor cases of acid reflux, GERD, or have developed complications associated with chronic GERD, the physicians at Vitale ENT can help you find relief.
Schedule an appointment online or call us today at (813) 406-4400.