The esophagus is the tube that connects the throat to the stomach. When you swallow, your lower esophageal sphincter — a band of muscle around the bottom of your esophagus — relaxes to allow food to enter your stomach. Once this is done, the sphincter closes again. However, if the valve ever weakens or relaxes abnormally, stomach acid can flow back up into your esophagus. This condition is known as acid reflux and causes a burning sensation in your chest known as heartburn.
Most cases of heartburn are brief and can be treated by over-the-counter medications and self–care measures. Medications include: antacids such as Maalox, Mylanta, Rolaids or Tums; H-2 receptor blockers such as Tagamet or Pepcid AC; or proton pump inhibitors such as Prilosec.
In addition to these medications, there are certains habits that may reduce or eliminate acid reflux. Avoid certain foods such as fried meals, alcohol and caffeine. Also, work to control your weight through exercise and dieting. Being overweight puts pressure on your stomach and forces acid back into your esophagus. Finally, do not lie down directly after a meal; wait at least 2-3 hours after eating before going to bed.
Sometimes acid reflux progresses to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a more severe form of acid reflux. Complications of GERD include the following:
• Esophagitis, which is the irritation and inflammation of the esophagus.
• Esophageal stricture, a narrowing of the esophagus, making it difficult at times to swallow food or liquids.
• Barrett’s esophagus, a condition in which precancerous changes occur in the cells of the esophagus. If left untreated, Barrett’s esophagus can progress to esophageal cancer.
Individuals who think they may have GERD should seek medical advice from a doctor, particularly if they experience heartburn that occurs at least several times a week, heartburn that interrupts sleep, or difficulty while eating or drinking. Your doctor will know from your symptoms which prescription medications to use and if further testing is required.