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Also called heartburn, acid reflux describes a condition where stomach acid and undigested food move backward from the stomach into the esophagus, causing painful, burning sensations in the esophagus and the central chest or abdomen. Most people experience acid reflux on occasion, especially when eating too much, when consuming very spicy foods or carbonated beverages, or while pregnant. Being overweight or obese also increases the likelihood of experiencing acid reflux. But when reflux occurs on a regular basis, it can be a sign of a more serious issue called gastroesophageal reflux, or GERD.
GERD is a serious condition that results in chronic episodes of heartburn and which requires ongoing treatment to prevent damage to the esophagus as well as an increased risk for esophageal cancer. In GERD, the valve or opening between the stomach and esophagus (called the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES) becomes damaged or weakened, allowing acid to reflux from the stomach into the esophagus and sometimes even the throat. Over time, the backwash of acid can cause permanent changes to the tissue that lines the esophagus, a condition called Barrett's esophagus. People with Barrett's esophagus have an increased risk for developing esophageal cancer.
People with GERD have heartburn on a regular basis – often several times a week. If you have heartburn regularly, you should schedule a consultation to discuss your condition and determine if you need additional testing. Diagnosing GERD typically involves an office exam and an endoscopy to evaluate the LES and the lining of your esophagus.
Usually, GERD can be successfully managed with medication. In some severe cases, surgery may be needed to repair the LES.
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