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Heartburn (GERD)

What Is GERD?

Last modified: 
16/04/2013 - 13:10

Contributing Author: Guy Slowik FRCS

GERD stands for Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease. "Gastro" refers to the stomach. Esophageal refers to the esophagus , the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomachReflux means to back-up or flow backwards. GERD is a condition in which acid, bile and partially-digested food in the stomach back up into the esophagus.

  • Partially digested food contains a strong acid. It also contains powerful enzymes that break down food. When acid and enzymes come into contact with the esophagus, they cause irritation, inflammation, pain, and other symptoms.
  • The stomach lining has a special protective layer that protects the stomach from acid attack. However, this protective layer does not exist in the esophagus, making it vulnerable to damage from stomach acid and digestive enzymes.

  • Many people think that heartburn (or acid indigestion) is a separate disease. It actually is one symptom of GERD. Heartburn is an unpleasant burning sensation behind the breastbone that usually occurs after a meal.
  • Most individuals with GERD also have hiatal hernias , which make it easier for stomach contents to reflux into the esophagus. Ahiatal hernia occurs when part of the stomach bulges into the chest cavity through an opening in the diaphragm (hiatus). The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle that separates the stomach cavity from the chest cavity.

Facts About GERD

  • One 1 in every 4 Americans, or about 60 million people, experience heartburn at least once a month.
  • Almost 15 million people have heartburn each day.
  • Heartburn is very common during pregnancy. More than 50 percent of pregnant women have it occasionally and 5 per cent have it daily.
  • About 80 percent of people with GERD have a hiatal hernia, which makes heartburn and other symptoms more likely.
  • Hiatal hernias are very common, affecting about 15 percent of Americans. Yet only a small number of people with hiatal hernias have any symptoms.

Nice To Know:

Is GERD a new disease?

GERD is a relatively new term for recognized conditions commonly called "acid indigestion," "heartburn," "reflux," "reflux esophagitis," and "hiatal hernia." Doctors started using the term "GERD" in the 1980s because it better describes the real problem - reflux of irritating stomach contents into the esophagus. GERD is becoming the preferred medical term for these conditions.

  • Many people have never heard the term GERD and are not aware that GERD can have potentially serious health effects.
  • Doctors may still use other terms for conditions that actually are symptoms of GERD.

Nice To Know:

Q. What is heartburn, anyway? How does eating certain foods make the heart burn?

A. Heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. It's a popular term for the burning sensation that occurs behind the breastbone, right in the area where the heart is located. The esophagus also runs through the same region of the chest. It carries food from the mouth into the stomach, where a strong acid and enzymes help to digest it. When stomach contents back up into the esophagus, the acid and enzymes cause irritation and inflammation. That's the burning sensation in heartburn.

 

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From Andrew Maynard - Chair of the University of Michigan Department of Environmental Health Sciences, with help from David Faulkner - 2013 Master of Public Health graduate.