For about 20 percent of the United States, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a nagging problem. GERD is a digestive disorder that causes the contents of the stomach, mostly acid and bile, to flow back up into the esophagus (the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach). The most common symptoms of GERD are heartburn, usually after meals, as well as vomiting and nausea. Other symptoms of GERD can include sore throat or hoarseness, dry cough, bad breath, laryngitis and chest/abdominal pain.
“Generally, GERD can be treated through lifestyle modifications, such as diet changes, avoidance of large meals, weight loss and elevating the head of the bed,” says Niraj Jani, MD, Division Head of Gastroenterology and Division Head of GI Oncology at GBMC. “Certain medications may also provide relief, including over-the-counter heartburn remedies.” In extreme cases, surgical procedures to prevent reflux may be considered.
“The difficult thing about BE is that there are really no warning signs other than GERD”When GERD is More than Just a Nuisance
Ten to fifteen percent of patients experiencing chronic GERD will develop a more serious disease called Barrett’s Esophagus (BE). BE causes damage to the lining of the esophagus and can increase a person’s risk of developing esophageal cancer. “The difficult thing about BE is that there are really no warning signs other than GERD,” says Dr. Jani. “However, some factors can help us identify a patient’s risk for BE.” The longer an individual has symptoms of GERD, the more at risk he or she is to get BE. The risk of BE goes up as a person ages, and it is more common in white men. Those with a family history of reflux disease are more likely to suffer from GERD, and in turn, BE.
GBMC patients who are identified to be at a higher risk for BE are evaluated by a simple procedure using a long, thin tube with a light and camera at the end, to examine the lining of the esophagus for abnormalities. If any are found, multiple techniques are available for ablating abnormal areas. “One highly effective procedure offered at GBMC’s Kroh Center for Digestive Disorders is called radiofrequency ablation (RFA), which uses heat energy generated by current to burn abnormal cells,” explains Dr. Jani.
He encourages patients to see a doctor at the onset of symptoms to prevent serious damage to the esophagus. “Even with our advanced capabilities for treating GERD and BE, there is still no substitute for early detection.”