Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a digestive disorder. It is the back-up of acid or other contents from the stomach into the esophagus. The esophagus is a tube that runs from the back of the mouth to the stomach.
Heartburn, a burning feeling behind the breastbone, is the most common symptom of GERD. However, occasional or one-time heartburn does not mean you have GERD. GERD symptoms occur more than 2 times per week for several weeks. The reflux irritates the esophagus, which can cause permanent damage over the course of time.
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The esophagus and stomach are designed to propel food downward. A ring of muscle, called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), is at the far end of the esophagus, closest to the stomach. It relaxes to let food pass into the stomach then closes shut to prevent it from backing up. Normally, the stomach contracts and squeezes to help digest food and move it into the intestines. When the LES does not close properly or relaxes at the wrong time, the movement of the stomach can push acid and other contents back into the esophagus, causing heartburn. This can also happen when you are lying down or bending over.
Stomach acid irritates the esophagus. For some, the irritation may contribute to breathing difficulties, such as wheezing, congestion, or damage to the voice. Over time, the acid wears away the lining of the esophagus and can lead to complications like bleeding, stricture, or inflammation of the esophagus. The damage may also increase the risk of developing Barrett’s esophagus, an abnormal change in the cells in the lower part of the esophagus. Barrett's esophagus increases the risk of esophageal cancer.
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Last reviewed June 2016 by Daus Mahnke, MD Last Updated: 5/20/2015