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Digestive system
Digestive system

Gastroesophageal reflux disease
Gastroesophageal reflux disease

Upper gastrointestinal system
Upper gastrointestinal system

Gastroesophageal reflux - series
Gastroesophageal reflux - series


Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition in which food or liquid travels backwards from the stomach to the esophagus (the tube from the mouth to the stomach). This action can irritate the esophagus, causing heartburn and other symptoms.

Alternative Names:

Peptic esophagitis; Reflux esophagitis; GERD; Heartburn - chronic

Causes, incidence, and risk factors:

Gastroesophageal reflux is a common condition that often occurs without symptoms after meals. In some people, the reflux is related to a problem with the lower esophageal sphincter, a band of muscle fibers that usually closes off the esophagus from the stomach. If this sphincter doesn't close properly, food and liquid can move backward into the esophagus and may cause the symptoms.

The risk factors for reflux include hiatal hernia (a condition in which part of the stomach moves above the diaphragm, which is the muscle that separates the chest and abdominal cavities), pregnancy, and scleroderma.

A number of studies suggest that obesity contributes to gastroesophageal reflux. For instance, the Nurses Health Study found that being overweight or obese significantly increased reflux symptoms in women. (Women who lost weight in the study, meanwhile, had fewer symptoms.)

Heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux can be brought on or worsened by pregnancy and by many different medications. Such drugs include:

  • Anticholinergics (e.g. for seasickness)
  • Beta blockers for high blood pressure or heart disease
  • Bronchodilators for asthma
  • Calcium channel blockers for high blood pressure
  • Dopamine-active drugs for Parkinson's disease
  • Progestin for abnormal menstrual bleeding or birth control
  • Sedatives for insomnia or anxiety
  • Tricyclic antidepressants

If you suspect that one of your medications may be causing heartburn, talk to your doctor. Never change or stop medication you take regularly without talking to your doctor.


Signs and tests: A number of tests may help diagnose reflux or identify complications:


General measures include:

  • Avoiding alcohol and tobacco
  • Avoiding dietary fat, chocolate, caffeine, peppermint, onions, garlic, citrus juices, and tomato products (which may cause lower esophageal pressure)
  • Avoiding lying down after meals
  • Sleeping with the head of the bed elevated
  • Taking medication with plenty of water
  • Weight reduction

Medications that alleviate symptoms include:

  • Over-the-counter antacids after meals and at bedtime, although they do not last very long
  • Histamine H2 receptor blockers, mostly for milder symptoms
  • Promotility agents
  • Proton pump inhibitors, which may take up to four days to relieve symptoms
Anti-reflux operations (Nissen fundoplication and others) may help a small number of patients whose symptoms do not go away with lifestyle changes and drugs, Even after surgery, many patients still need to take drugs to relieve their symptoms. There are also new therapies that can be performed through an endoscope (a flexible tube passed through the mouth into the stomach) for reflux.

Support Groups:

Expectations (prognosis):

The majority of people respond to nonsurgical measures, with lifestyle changes and medications. However, many patients need to continue to take drugs to control their symptoms.

  • Barrett's esophagus (a change in the lining of the esophagus that can increase the risk of cancer)
  • Bronchospasm (irritation and resulting spasm of airways due to acid)
  • Chronic pulmonary disease
  • Esophageal ulcer
  • Hoarseness
  • Inflammation of the esophagus
  • Stricture (a narrowing of the esophagus due to scarring from the inflammation)

Calling your health care provider:

Call your health care provider if symptoms worsen or do not improve with lifestyle changes or medication.

Also call for any of the following symptoms:

  • Bleeding
  • Choking (coughing, shortness of breath)
  • Early satiety (feeling filled up quickly when eating)
  • Frequent vomiting
  • Hoarseness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Trouble swallowing (dysphagia) or pain with swallowing (odynophagia)
  • Weight loss

  • Heartburn prevention techniques
  • Looking at the esophagus with an endoscope and obtaining a sample of esophagus tissue for examination esophagoscopy with biopsy) may be recommended to diagnose Barrett's esophagus.
  • Follow-up endoscopy to look for dysplasia or cancer is often advised.


Wang, KK, Sampliner, R E. Updated guidelines 2008 for the diagnosis, surveillance and therapy of Barrett's esophagus. Am J Gastroenterol. 2008;103(3):788-97.

Khan, M, Santana, J, Donnellan, C, Preston, C, Moayyedi, P. Medical treatments in the short term management of reflux oesophagitis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev(2). 2007;CD003244.

Wilson, J F. In the clinic. Gastroesophageal reflux disease. Ann Intern Med. 2008;149(3): ITC2-1-15; quiz ITC2-16

Review Date: 9/7/2008
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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