by Sanaz Majd, MD
Most of us have experienced symptoms of indigestion, heartburn, or acid reflux at some point. It’s not typically an issue that causes concern if it’s infrequent. However, some people may find it quite bothersome when it occurs often, not to mention that it can lead to further complications if left untreated.
Although it’s usually a benign condition, you should know when to seek help and be aware of the serious complications if left untreated.
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What Are the Symptoms of Acid Reflux?
The stomach is connected to the mouth via a long tube called the esophagus. There’s a special muscle, called a “sphincter” surrounding the lower part of the esophagus where it joins the stomach. When this sphincter relaxes, like a doorway, it easily allows food to escape the stomach and enter the esophagus.
Most patients with acid reflux say they experience a sour taste in their mouth, as the acidic contents of the stomach come back up. People with “dyspepsia” don’t have this reflux, but they do say they experience heartburn, or a feeling of burning in the stomach, especially on an empty stomach or after a meal. Some patients have both heartburn and reflux. However, not everyone presents in this way. Here are some other possible symptoms of acid reflux and dyspepsia:
Nausea or vomiting
Pain with swallowing
Sensation that something is “stuck” in your throat
What are the Serious Complications of Acid Reflux?
When the symptoms are severe enough, they can lead to an ulcer. Ulcers can bleed, and can cause black or bloody stools, or bloody or coffee-ground appearing vomit. If his happens, it’s really important that you don’t ignore these symptoms and tell your doctor right away.
In addition, if the reflux becomes chronic (typically years) it can erode the esophagus and cause the cells of the esophagus to become precancerous or even cancerous. This condition is called “Barrett’s Esophagus,” and it is one of the reasons doctors don’t like to leave frequent reflux untreated.
What is a Hiatal Hernia?
There’s a variation of some people’s anatomy that is referred to as a “hiatal hernia,” in which the upper part of the stomach slips through the diaphragm (the part of the body that aids in breathing) and into the chest. The diaphragm normally gives support to the sphincter and keeps it closed, but in those with a hiatal hernia, stomach contents more easily reflux past the sphincter since the stomach is displaced upwards through this weakened diaphragm. Patients with hiatal hernias are at a higher risk of experiencing reflux throughout their lives.
5 Tips to Battle Acid Reflux
There are various over-the-counter antacids you can take to treat your mild acid reflux symptoms. However, when your symptoms occur at least twice a week, you may need a prescription medication to relieve your symptoms. Besides medications, I share 5 tips with all my patients who suffer from this:
Tip #1: Stop Smoking
Cigarette smoking causes relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter and increases acid reflux.
Tip #2: Raise the Head of the Bed
Lying flat removes the benefit of gravity and allows stomach contents to reflux more easily. Therefore, raising the top of the mattress 6 to 8 inches is helpful.
Tip #3: Eat More Frequent Smaller Meals
Eating too large of a meal can predispose you to reflux. When the stomach is overly packed with more content than it can handle, it causes pressure on the sphincter and opens it up to release some of the pressure. Therefore, eating 5 smaller meals a day, rather than 3 large ones, will decrease your risk of reflux. Also, refrain from eating within 3 hours of bedtime.
Tip #4: Lose Weight
Increased abdominal weight places pressure over the stomach, causing its contents to more easily reflux. If you are overweight or obese and experiencing acid reflux, losing some weight will bring you relief.
Tip #5: Avoid Food Triggers
Various dietary components and foods trigger sphincter relaxation as well. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, spicy foods, tomatoes or tomato sauce, mint, chocolate, blueberries, acidic foods (like lemons and oranges, or the juices of them), and greasy or fatty foods.
When To See Your Doctor
Please see your doctor if you have symptoms occurring twice a week or more, and immediately if you are experiencing:
bleeding (blood or black contents in vomit or stool)
unexpected weight loss
Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.
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