Gastroesophageal reflux disease is an ailment in which the sufferer feels a burning sensation near the upper abdomen. This sensation seems to be so close to the heart that people who are not healthcare professionals usually refer to it as heartburn. The organ that feels as if it is burning is actually the esophagus. Gastroesophageal reflux disease refers to the backflow, or reflux, of the contents of the stomach into the esophagus.
When people eat, food travels down the esophagus and into the stomach. Once the food has passed into the stomach, a muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter normally stays tightly contracted to prevent food from going back the way it came. In people who have gastroesophageal reflux disease, the lower esophageal sphincter fails to contract fully, and whatever is in the stomach backs up into the esophagus. This also includes the acids that the stomach secretes to break down foods into their raw materials for nutrition.
The acids that back up into the esophagus in people who suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease are what cause the unpleasant burning sensation that many term heartburn. This is because the stomach acids begin to break down the protective inner lining of the esophagus. The stomach is able to withstand the highly corrosive acids that it secretes, but a healthy esophagus does not need the same protection because the lower esophageal sphincter is in place to prevent stomach acids from backing up into it.
Lifestyle modification might be the first line of defense for people who have gastroesophageal reflux disease. These might include eating foods low in fat and spices, avoiding eating two hours before bed, and sleeping with the head of the bed elevated to prevent acid reflux with the aid of gravity. Research suggests that smoking might make the condition worse. All situations are different, and it is best for the patient to make note of which events trigger gastroesophageal reflux disease symptoms and avoid them.
There are mainly two types of medications that treat gastroesophageal reflux disease. The most conservative medicinal treatment is to take medication designed to neutralize the acid so that it does not have its normal corrosive effect. This is called an antacid. Another type of medication keeps the stomach from producing most of its acids. As of the year 2010, drugs called proton pump inhibitors are generally considered the most effective way to decrease stomach acid production.
If lifestyle modification and medication do not work, surgery might be necessary. The standard surgery for gastroesophageal reflux disease as of 2010 is called Nissen fundoplication. This operation makes the lower esophageal sphincter stronger by wrapping the upper part of the stomach around it. The sphincter is then able to close properly and prevent the reflux of the stomach contents.