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Maybe Your Heartburn Needs a Doctor's Care

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Americans have been saturated with enough magazine ads and TV commercials to know that heartburn occasionally goes by the name GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease.

The names aren’t quite interchangeable, and the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) is helpful at putting it into anatomical terms: Occasional heartburn is GER, gastroesophageal reflux, which is when the lower esophageal sphincter opens spontaneously or does not close properly and lets stomach contents rise up into the esophagus.

GERD is a more serious form of GER and is defined as persistent reflux that occurs more than twice a week.

Over-the-counter medications often do the trick for simple heartburn, say, when you have eaten too huge of a meal or have overloaded on spicy foods. You can end up with that burning sensation behind your breastbone and into your chest and throat, along with an overall sluggishness. Maybe you can even still taste the food you indulged in at the back of your mouth.

Seeing as how digestive juices, or acids, have backed up from your stomach into your esophagus, it’s not surprising that the other common moniker for your condition is acid indigestion.

But GER sometimes can become more than a minor annoyance and even a symptom of a larger problem, and you ought to seek advice from your healthcare practitioner. That’s especially true if heartburn hits you on a regular basis, or impacts your physical activities or social life.

Doctors have several tools at their disposal for evaluating GERD. Usually it begins with a series of questions on your eating habits, activities, severity of heartburn symptoms, family history and general lifestyle. A prescription medication might be all that is needed.

If heartburn problems lead you to a gastroenterologist, though, here are a few options:

-- An upper gastrointestinal endoscopy, using a thin, flexible tube to view your esophagus and the first part of your small intestine.

-- Manometry testing, which looks at how well the muscles in your esophagus are moving food into the stomach and whether the lower esophageal sphincter, or valve, is closing tightly enough.

-- Esophageal pH monitoring, using either a catheter or a wireless capsule and letting pH sensors measure the reflux of acid from your stomach into your esophagus. The testing is done for a day or two while the patient goes about regular eating and physical activities.

-- An upper gastrointestinal X-ray series, which is not so much to diagnose GERD, but to see whether you have a hiatal hernia or an esophageal stricture, or narrowing.

There are even other options -- including surgery -- for getting a handle on the problem, whether it’s truly GERD or another ailment. Either way, it’s important to work with your health care practitioner rather than suffer with that burning feeling.


“Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): Exams and Tests.” Health Encyclopedia. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Web. 14 Sept. 2011. http://patients.dartmouth-hitchcock.org/health_information/health_encyclopedia/hw99177#hw99275

“Heartburn, Gastroesophageal Reflux (GER), and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).” National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Web. 14 Sept. 2011.

“Esophageal pH Monitoring.” Digestive Diseases Center at Temple University Hospital. Web. 14 Sept. 2011. http://digestive.templehealth.org/content/EsophagealpH.htm

Reviewed September 15, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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