Acid reflux occurs when the acid produced by your stomach moves backwards up into your esophagus, which is the tube that connects your throat to your stomach. You may taste sour liquid or regurgitated food at the back of your mouth during an episode of acid reflux, or you may experience the burning sensation in your chest known as heartburn.
Acid reflux is quite common. More than 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month, according to the American College of Gastroenterology, and more than 15 million Americans may experience symptoms each day.
Doctors refer to acid reflux as gastroesophageal reflux. Sometimes simple acid reflux progresses to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is a more severe form of reflux. About 20 percent of people in the United States have GERD, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Frequent heartburn is the most common symptom of GERD, although many people experience difficulty swallowing, wheezing, coughing and chest pain, particularly while lying down at night.
What Happens During Acid Reflux?
Food moves from your mouth through your esophagus to your stomach. A ring of muscle forms a valve at the entrance to your stomach. This valve, known as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), normally closes as food passes from your esophagus into your stomach. If your LES closes incompletely, or if it opens up too often, acid produced in your stomach can move up your esophagus. This acid can irritate the delicate lining of your esophagus to cause heartburn.
Causes of Acid Reflux
One common cause of acid reflux is hiatal hernia, which occurs when the upper part of your stomach and LES move above your diaphragm, which is the muscle that separates your chest from your stomach. Your diaphragm normally helps to keep acid in your stomach but a hiatal hernia can allow stomach acid to move up into your diaphragm.
Diagnosis of Acid Reflux
If you have symptoms of acid reflux more than twice a week, or if medications do not bring relief, it is time to see your doctor. Your doctor will pay close attention to your symptoms, as they can help diagnose your condition.
Your practitioner may order tests to confirm a diagnosis or to look for other problems. These other test may include:
• Barium swallow to check for ulcers
• Esophageal manometry to check LES function
• pH monitoring to check for acid in your esophagus
• Endoscopy to check for problems in your esophagus or stomach
• Biopsy, performed during endoscopy, to take samples for inspection under a microscope
Treatment for Acid Reflux
Lifestyle changes can help. To reduce occasional episodes of acid reflux, you can:
• Lose weight if you are overweight
• Eat smaller, more frequent meals
• Avoid foods that trigger your acid reflux, such as spicy, fried or fatty foods, peppermint chocolate, citrus, chocolate, tomato, mint, garlic or onions
• Avoid certain beverages, such as coffee, tea, carbonated beverages and alcohol
• Avoid nicotine
• Do not wear tight clothing or tight belts
• Put blocks under the head of your bed to raise it 4–6 inches
If lifestyle changes alone do not work, you may find relief with over-the-counter medications, including:
• Antacids, such as Tums
• H-2-receptor blockers, such as Pepcid AC or Tagamet HB
• Proton pump inhibitors, such as Prilosec OTC