Heartburn: the acid connection

Most of us have had heartburn, that painful or burning sensation in the upper part of the stomach, at some point in our lives. Frequent heartburn is a symptom of a medical condition called GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease, also called reflux disease).

Dr. Armstrong explains that GERD occurs when your stomach contents wash up (reflux) into your esophagus (the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach). This happens when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a muscle ring at the bottom of your esophagus, does not stay tight enough to keep the stomach contents in the stomach where they belong.

The contents of your stomach are highly acidic. It's the stomach acid that causes the symptoms of GERD, including heartburn, acid regurgitation, chest pain, and disturbed sleep. And it's the stomach acid that can eventually damage the delicate tissues in the esophagus. Over the long term, GERD can lead to complications, including a condition called Barrett's esophagus, which increases the risk of developing cancer of the esophagus.

Acid suppression is the process of using medications to reduce acid secretion in the stomach. It can help make the stomach contents less acidic so that they cause less damage when they wash up into the esophagus. This translates into relief of heartburn symptoms. It also helps prevent and heal esophagus damage caused by GERD. In Dr. Armstrong's experience, most people find that heartburn and other GERD symptoms will disappear almost completely with acid suppression.

Dr. Armstrong also points out that although acid suppression relieves symptoms and prevents damage, it doesn't make the disease (GERD) go away. People with severe or frequent symptoms are likely to need long-term acid suppression treatment.

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