Do you consider gastric reflux “just a nuisance”? This is one of the most common myths we hear about this condition, and while it may be just an annoyance for some, for others it can have a dramatic impact on quality of life and lead to more serious complications. Symptoms can be so severe that sufferers are unable to sleep horizontally in a bed and can only sleep upright in a chair. In other cases, individuals are unable to eat normal meals since they tend to immediately regurgitate their food. In its most advanced stages, chronic gastric reflux can result in esophagitis, throat ulcers, strictures (narrowing of the esophagus), Barrett’s esophagus (a pre-cancerous condition), and reflux-induced adenocarcinoma (esophageal cancer).
Learn more: What causes heartburn? The role of the LES
Complications from gastric reflux
The esophagus is the tube of muscles that contracts and moves food from the throat to the stomach. When stomach acid repeatedly comes into contact with the lining of the esophagus, it can damage that sensitive tissue, causing esophageal redness, tenderness, and swelling. This inflammation is called esophagitis. If reflux continues untreated, esophagitis may progress to bleeding of the esophagus, ulcers, and scarring. This type of damage is reversible and can be treated by reducing the acidity of the stomach contents with acid reducing medications.
Esophageal erosions (ulcers)
Esophageal erosions indicate the slow but sure breaking down of the esophagus. Stomach acid can wear away tissues in the esophagus, causing an open wound. This wound is known as an erosion or ulcer and may bleed, cause pain, and make it hard to swallow. As with esophagitis, acid-reducing medications can help the esophagus heal.
Learn more: The visual symptoms of esophageal cancer
Exposure to acid from refluxed stomach contents can damage to cells in the lower esophagus, which may cause scar tissue to form. Sometimes, when the damaged tissue lining of the esophagus becomes scarred, it causes the esophagus to narrow. This is called a stricture. These strictures get in the way of eating and drinking by stopping food and drink from making it to the stomach. Strictures can be treated by dilation, where an instrument carefully stretches and expands the opening in the esophagus.
One serious complication of GERD is Barrett’s esophagus. In Barrett’s esophagus, the tissue covering the esophagus changes to tissue that looks like the tissue lining the stomach and intestine. Some people with Barrett’s esophagus have GERD symptoms, while others don’t have any symptoms at all. Barrett’s esophagus is a pre-cancerous condition and increases the risk of developing esophageal adenocarcinoma, a cancer of the esophagus. People who have Barrett’s esophagus are between 30 to 125 times more predisposed to develop esophageal cancer than those who don’t.
Learn more: Serious esophagus problems: Barrett’s esophagus
Esophageal cancer (Esophageal adenocarcinoma)
Esophageal adenocarcinoma is a cancer of the esophagus caused by GERD. While esophageal adenocarcinoma is rare, the incidence of this deadly disease has increased six-fold in the last 40 years. Early detection is key to effectively treating this cancer. Esophageal cancer might not have any signs or symptoms present at first. Later, in more advanced stages, symptoms of esophageal cancer include difficulty swallowing, weight loss, pain behind the breast bone, coughing, hoarseness, and indigestion and heartburn.
Learn more: Esophagus cancer 101
Avoiding complications from chronic gastric reflux
The best way to prevent the complications that may come from chronic acid reflux is to get your condition under control. The odds of damage to the esophagus from acid reflux are reduced when there are fewer acid reflux episodes. While acid-reducing medications can minimize symptoms and help heal esophagitis and erosions, they do not stop reflux from happening. This may mean that you also need to make some changes in your lifestyle. Many people can reduce the incidence of symptoms considerably by knowing and avoiding heartburn triggers and avoiding behaviors that play a part in acid reflux.
It’s also important that you be alert to changes in your health. Signs that your GERD could be getting worse include regurgitation of food, difficulty swallowing, sore throat, and a hoarse voice. If you notice any of these symptoms, be sure to let your doctor know. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Take control of your chronic acid reflux today, so you feel better now AND down the road.