Our mission at RefluxMD is to educate people with GERD about their condition so they can make informed choices about their treatment and find lasting relief from their symptoms. We have covered virtually every topic related to GERD and in some cases, many times over. We were recently asked about the most important things a GERD sufferer should understand – it was tougher than we expected to come up with a short list! Though there are many aspects of this disease that need recognition, we feel the most pressing issues are: 1) the alarming growth in this disease, 2) the lack of awareness about the potential consequences of long-term GERD, and 3) the shockingly widespread misconception that PPI medication cures GERD.
Fact 1: GERD is an epidemic
It is estimated that 75 million American adults (1 in 5) have GERD symptoms weekly, and the incidence of the condition has been growing at a rate of 30% every decade. Some predict that growth will accelerate. If you were to include Canada, Europe, Japan, and Australia, estimates put the number of total sufferers to 190 million with almost half of those reporting a considerable impact on their quality of life. These numbers are astounding, yet there’s little awareness of the condition and it’s often written off as just a nuisance. If those numbers don’t shock you, a quick look at the economics of the condition paint an even harsher reality. OTC and prescription medications cost Americans over $10 billion annually. It’s estimated that medical costs for an individual with GERD amounts to $3,355 annually, and the disease costs employers $1.9 billion a week from loss of productivity and absenteeism. These realities are only forecasted to increase. It’s time to stop GERD in it’s tracks.
Learn more: Getting real about reflux disease
Fact 2: GERD is a progressive disease and can lead to esophageal cancer
The second key message is the very real risk of the harsh consequences that result after many years of acid reflux. There are two parts to this message. One is the ever-looming threat of esophageal cancer. Esophageal cancer is the fastest growing cancer in the US, and the number of cases have increased by 600% since 1975. This unfortunate rise is directly linked to the rise in acid reflux cases. When the contents of the stomach flow up into the esophagus, they can damage the cells lining the surface of the esophagus, eventually causing changes that can lead to cancer.
Learn more: Esophagus cancer 101
Though esophageal cancer is rare, making up only 1% of cancer diagnosis’ per year, there are other complications that acid reflux can cause, mainly severely impacting quality of life. The main culprit to acid reflux is the progressive damage incurred to the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The LES is a ring muscle located at the junction of your stomach and your esophagus that works as a valve, allowing foods down and closing to keep foods from rising upward. When an episode of reflux occurs, it is because your LES has relaxed in appropriately, allowing the stomach contents to flow upward. Over time, the LES can weaken and result on chronic reflux. This can lead to a very challenging lifestyle that includes sleeping in a chair to keep stomach contents down, unremitting heartburn, chronic regurgitation, and an inability to even hold down a glass of water. Sadly, when GERD is left unchecked and allowed to progress, you will leave yourself open to any and all the above.
Learn more: The progressive stages of GERD
Fact 3: Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are overused in the treatment of GERD
Lastly, we believe it is critical for all people with GERD to understand the role of medications in the treatment of the condition. Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs) such as Nexium and Prilosec do not cure GERD, they only control the symptoms for some GERD sufferers. A major issue today is that a great portion of physicians only treat GERD with PPI medication and often put their patients on the medication for an indefinite period. This treatment model has grown rampant because PPIs often cause reflux symptoms to subside providing the much-desired relief, leaving both physician and patient happy without consideration of the necessary lifestyle changes to stop reflux from happening in the first place. The fact is that reflux will continue to occur even while taking medications. Nevertheless, once the pill cures the pain, the lifestyle of the sufferer rarely changes and continued damage to the LES ensues. An effective long-term GERD treatment plan MUST also include diet and lifestyle changes designed to stop reflux from happening to prevent long-term complications.
What can you do?
Understand that you can be part of the solution. Educate yourself so you take control of your health. Make the appropriate diet and lifestyle changes to help relieve your symptoms AND stop the progression of your disease. Use medication wisely. If you continue to struggle with your symptoms, consider consulting a GERD expert. I’m sure you have a great relationship with your primary care doctor, but you can’t expect him/her to know everything about every disease. It is crucial to consult with someone who understands this disease, especially the long-term repercussions of GERD, so you can weigh the pros and cons of each treatment option and come up with your plan for relief. Finally, help spread the word about this disease. Talk to your loved ones and tell them what you’ve learned so we can begin to reverse the course of the GERD epidemic.