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Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease and Heartburn

March 2002


Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition in which the acids from the stomach move backward from the stomach into the esophagus (an action called reflux). Reflux occurs if the muscular actions in the esophagus or other protective mechanisms fail. [For a full description of the actions in the esophagus, see Box, The Esophagus.]

The hallmark symptoms of GERD are:

  • Heartburn: a burning sensation in the chest and throat.

  • Regurgitation: a sensation of acid backed up in the esophagus.

  • Although acid is a primary factor in damage caused by GERD, other products of the digestive tract, including pepsin and bile, can also be harmful.

The Esophagus

The esophagus, commonly called the food pipe , is a narrow muscular tube about nine and a half inches long. It begins below the tongue and ends at the stomach. The esophagus is narrowest at the top and bottom; it also narrows slightly in the middle. The esophagus consists of three basic layers:
  • An outer layer of fibrous tissue.

  • A middle layer containing smoother muscle.

  • An inner membrane, which contains numerous tiny glands.
When a person swallows food, the esophagus moves it into the stomach through the action of peristalsis, wave-like muscle contractions. In the stomach, the starch, fat, and protein in food is broken down by acid and various enzymes, notably hydrochloric acid and pepsin. The stomach has a thin layer of mucus that protects it from these fluids.

If acid and enzymes back up into the esophagus, however, its lining offers only a weak defense. The esophagus is protected using specific muscles and other factors.

The most important structure protecting the esophagus may be the lower esophageal sphincter ( LES). The LES is a band of muscle around the bottom of the esophagus where it meets the stomach.

  • The LES opens after a person swallows to let food enter the stomach and then immediately closes to prevent regurgitation of the stomach contents, including gastric acid.

  • The LES maintains this pressure barrier until food is swallowed again.
If the pressure barrier is not sufficient to prevent regurgitation and acid backs-up (reflux), then peristaltic action of the esophagus serves as an additional defense mechanism and pushes the contents back down into the stomach.


Conditions Associated with GERD

Erosive Esophagitis. In most people, GERD symptoms are short-lived and occur infrequently. In about 20% of cases, however, the condition becomes chronic. When the acid causes irritation or inflammation, the condition is called esophagitis. If the damage becomes extensive and injures the esophagus, the disorder is known as erosive esophagus.

Non-Erosive Esophageal Reflux Disease. Symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease can occur without any signs of inflammation or injury to the esophagus. This condition is tentatively referred to as non-erosive esophageal reflux disease (NERD). NERD rarely progresses to full-blown GERD. In NERD, patients have no signs of inflammation or erosion in the esophagus, but they experience certain symptoms of GERD, such as burning sensations behind the breastbone for at least three months. Researchers suggest that nerves lying near the surface of the lining become exposed to acid that has penetrated the layers. The nerves then trigger prolonged and painful symptoms in response.

Barrett's Esophagus. In a small percentage of chronic patients, a serious form of GERD called Barrett's esophagus may eventually develop, in which erosion can lead to cancerous changes in the tissue lining of the esophagus. [See Box Barrett's Esophagus.]


Barrett's esophagus (BE) is a condition in which changes occur in the cells that line the lower esophagus and cause the cells to become abnormal and precancerous. In fact, BE is a proven risk factor for cancer in the mucous lining of the esophagus. Such changes appear to develop after chronic and severe exposure to acid and bile reflux caused by GERD. Esophageal cancer is one of the most rapidly increasing cancers in North America. It is also very difficult to cure. An estimated 13,000 people will develop esophageal cancer in 2002, and most of these cases will have started with Barrett's esophagus.

Risk Factors for Barrett's Esophagus

Barrett's esophagus is categorized as either long-segment or short segment disease:
  • Long-segment BE occurs when abnormal cells affect 3 cm or more of the esophagus. This condition occurs in about 3% to 5% of GERD patients. It is associated with a more severe condition.

  • Short-segment BE affects a shorter segment and is found in about 10% to 15% of GERD patients. It usually causes few symptoms.
Studies have not been able to determine with any confidence which individuals with GERD are at higher than average risk for Barrett's esophagus. In a 2001 study comparing patients with and without BE, for example, there were no differences between the two groups in gender, ethnicity, smoking and alcohol use, or the presence of GERD complications (stricture and erosive esophagitis). In fact, BE patients had fewer severe symptoms than those without BE.

Monitoring for Barrett's Esophagus and Cancer

  • Barrett's esophagus is diagnosed using endoscopy a procedure that involves inserting a tube down the throat so that the physician can view the esophagus. [For a description, see How is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease Diagnosed?] Some experts recommend periodic endoscopy in patients with chronic GERD to detect BE in order to reduce the risk for cancer. It should be noted, however, that up to 40% of patients with esophageal cancer have no signs of GERD.

  • following individuals are at very high or very low risk for cancer associated with BE:

  • The highest risk individuals are obese white men over the age of 50 years.

  • The risk is extremely low for women of African and Asian descent.

  • In patients who have been diagnosed with Barrett's esophagus, periodic endoscopy is usually recommended for detecting early cancer. However, only a minority of patients with BE develop cancer. In one study, out of 143 patients with BE, only one developed cancer after nearly four and a half years.
Fluorescent spectroscopy is a technique being investigated with endoscopy that involves the insertion of a fiber optic probe that illuminates tissue in the esophagus. The reflecting light waves vary depending on the depth and type of tissue and are analyzed to detect precancerous cells. Various spectroscopy techniques, particularly light-scattering spectroscopy, used alone or in combination are proving to be very accurate in detecting a range of abnormal growths.

Treatments for Barrett's Esophagus

To date, no treatments can reverse the cellular damage done after Barrett's esophagus has developed, although some procedures are showing promise.

Proton-Pump Inhibitors. Some experts recommend very aggressive treatments to reduce acid reflux using high-dose proton-pump inhibitors. The standard agent has been omeprazole (Prilosec). Newer oral PPIs include lansoprazole (Prevacid), esomeprazole (Nexium), and rabeprazole (Aciphex). They do not, however, cure the condition. Even when drugs relieve symptoms completely, then, the condition usually recurs within months after the drugs are discontinued. In chronic cases, drugs may need to be taken life long.

COX-2 Inhibitors. Celecoxib (Celebrex), rofecoxib (Vioxx), and valdecoxib (Bextra) are known as COX-2 (cyclooxygenase-2) inhibitors. They reduce inflammation and pain as do well-known agents such as aspirin and ibuprofen, but experts are hoping that they may prove pose less of a risk for peptic ulcers and bleeding. Some early evidence suggests they may be protective against cancerous changes in patients with Barrett's esophagus. However, long-term use of these drugs may have some potential serious side effects that patients should discuss with their physician.

Procedures to Remove the Mucus Lining. Number procedures have developed that use photodynamic therapy (PDT) or laser, electrical, or heat probes to remove the mucus lining of the esophagus. Such techniques remove early cancerous or precancerous tissue and allow regrowth of new and hopefully healthy tissue in the esophagus.

For example, in one 2001 study electric coagulation of the tissue achieved visible reversal of tissue abnormalities in 85% of patients. It is not known if such benefits last.

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is showing specific promise. One such approach uses three components:

  • Intravenous or topical administration of a light sensitive agent.

  • One-color light (light source may be laser, florescent, or light emitting diodes).

  • Oxygen.
This combination generates damaging particles called oxygen-free radicals that destroy the proliferating cells. Studies on the use of these ablation techniques combined with aggressive use of proton-pump inhibitors or surgical treatments are very encouraging, and some may eventually even offer potential cures. These procedures also have complications, however, such as possible problems swallowing, that the patients should discuss with their physician.

Esophagectomy. Esophagectomy is the surgical removal of all or part of the esophagus. Patients with Barrett's esophagus who are otherwise healthy, are candidates for this procedure if endoscopy shows developing cancer. After removal, in total or in part, a new conduit for foods and fluids must be established to replace the absent esophagus. Alternatives include the stomach, colon, and part of the small intestine called the jejunum. The stomach is the optimal choice.


Anyone can have mild and temporary heartburn caused by overeating acidic foods. This is especially true when bending over, taking a nap, or engaging in lifting after a large meal high in fatty, acidic foods. Persistent gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), however, may be due to various conditions, including abnormal biologic or structural factors.

Malfunction of the Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES) Muscles

The band of muscle tissue called lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is responsible for closing and opening the lower end of the esophagus and is essential for maintaining a pressure barrier against contents from the stomach. It is a complex area of smooth muscles and various hormones. If it weakens and loses tone, the LES cannot close up completely after food empties into the stomach. In such cases, acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus. Dietary substances, drugs, and nervous system factors can weaken it and impair its function.

Impaired Stomach Function

A study showed that over half of GERD patients showed abnormal nerve or muscle function in the stomach. These abnormalities cause impaired motility , which is the inability of muscles to act spontaneously. The stomach muscles, then, do not contract normally, which causes delays in stomach emptying, increasing the risk for acid back up.

Abnormalities in the Esophagus

Some studies suggest that most people with atypical GERD symptoms may (such as hoarseness, chronic cough, or the feeling of having a lump in the throat) have specific abnormalities in the esophagus. (In one study, such abnormalities appeared in 73% of patients who had atypical symptoms.)

Motility Abnormalities. Problems in spontaneous muscle action ( peristalsis) in the esophagus commonly occur in GERD, although it is not clear if such occurrences are a cause or result of long-term effects of GERD.

Adult-Ringed Esophagus. This condition is characterized by an esophagus with multiple rings and persistent trouble with swallowing (including getting food stuck in the esophagus). It occurs mostly in men.

Hiatal Hernia

The hiatus is a small hole in the diaphragm through which the esophagus passes into the stomach. It normally fits very snugly, but it may weaken and enlarge. When this happens, part of the stomach muscles may protrude into it producing a condition called hiatal hernia . It is very common, occurring in over half of people over 60 years old, and is rarely serious. Until recent years, it was commonly believed that most cases of persistent heartburn were caused by a hiatal hernia. Hiatal hernia may impair LES muscle function. Studies have failed to confirm evidence, however, that it is a common cause of GERD, although its presence may increase GERD symptoms in patients with both conditions.

Genetic Factors

Studies suggest an inherited risk exists in many cases of GERD, possibly because of inherited muscular or structural problems in stomach or esophagus. Genetic factors may especially play a strong role in susceptibility to Barrett's esophagus, a precancerous condition caused by very severe gastroesophageal reflux.


At least half of asthmatic patients also have GERD. Some experts speculate that the coughing and sneezing accompanying asthmatic attacks cause changes in pressure in the chest that can trigger reflux. Certain asthmatic drugs that dilate the airways may relax the LES and contribute to GERD. On the other hand, GERD has been associated with a number of other upper respiratory problems and may be a cause of asthma, rather than a result. [ See How Serious is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease? below.]

Other Gastrointestinal Condition Associated with GERD

Crohn's disease is a chronic ailment that causes inflammation and injury in the colon and other parts of the gastrointestinal tract, including the esophagus. Other disorders that may affect areas that can contribute to GERD include diabetes, any gastrointestinal disorder, peptic ulcers, lymphomas, and cancer.

Eradication of Helicobacter Pylori

Helicobacter Pylori , also called H. pylori , is a bacteria found in the mucous membranes and is now known to be a major cause of peptic ulcers. Antibiotics used to eradicate H. pylori are now accepted treatment for curing ulcers. Of some concern, however, are studies indicating that H. Pylori may actually protect against gastroesophageal reflux disease by reducing stomach acid. Furthermore, curing ulcers by eliminating the bacteria might actually trigger GERD in some people. One study, for example, observed that patients with cured infections of H. Pylori were twice as likely to develop GERD as those who remained infected. To date, studies have not reported an association between H. Pylori and any higher risk for more serious related complications of GERD, specifically Barrett's esophagus, although more research is needed.

Overreactive Immune Response

In some cases, the esophagus appears normal, but GERD symptoms are present. This may indicate an over-reaction of the immune system to irritants that are introduced into the esophagus. In such cases, the immune system reacts with an exaggerated (or hyperreactive) response to them, triggering the release of certain factors that end up causing inflammation and possibly injury. (This event is similar to the asthmatic response in the airwaves.)

Drugs that Increase the Risk for GERD

NSAIDs. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), common causes of peptic ulcers, may also cause GERD and increase severity in people who already have GERD. In a three-year study of 25,000 people, NSAID users were twice as likely to have GERD symptoms as nonusers. Symptoms did not become evident until after about six months of regular use. There are dozens of NSAIDs including aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil, Nuprin, Rufen), and naproxen (Aleve) and many prescription agents. A person with GERD who takes the occasional aspirin or other NSAID will not necessarily experience adverse effects. This is especially true if there are no risk factors or indications of ulcers. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is a good alternative for those who want to relieve mild pain.

Note: Interestingly, NSAIDs have properties that may help to prevent precancerous changes from Barrett's esophagus. Newer NSAIDs called COX-2 inhibitors may prove to be cancer protective in these patients without producing GERD. They include celecoxib (Celebrex), rofecoxib (Vioxx), and valdecoxib (Bextra). [For more information see Box Barrett's Esophagus.]

Other Drugs . Many other drugs can cause GERD, including but not limited to the following: calcium channel blockers (used to treat high blood pressure and angina), anticholinergics (used in drugs that treat urinary tract disorders, allergies, and glaucoma), beta adrenergic agonists (used for asthma and obstructive lung diseases), dopamine (used in Parkinson's disease), bisphosphonates (used to treat osteoporosis), sedatives, antibiotics, potassium, or iron pills.

Other Causes of GERD

Weakened peristaltic movement in the esophagus may contribute to GERD. If the mucous membrane is impaired, even a normal amount of acid can harm the esophagus. Pressure on the abdomen caused by obesity and also wearing tight clothing can contribute to acid-backing up into the esophagus.


Studies suggest that between 21% and 59% of Americans suffer heartburn or regurgitation during any given year. Only 20% of people with such symptoms seek help. Interestingly, a random survey of 2,000 Americans who reported having heartburn at least once in the last six months indicated that most didn't know the risk factors for it, and when they were told, most made no behavior or lifestyle changes to avoid or prevent heartburn. People of all ages are susceptible to GERD. Elderly people with GERD tend to have a more serious condition than younger people.

Risk Factors for Heartburn, GERD, or Both

Eating-Pattern Risk Factors. Anyone who eats a heavy meal, particularly if one subsequently lies on the back or bends over from the waist, is at risk for an attack of heartburn. Anyone who snacks at bedtime is at high risk for heartburn.

Pregnant Women. Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to heartburn in their third trimester as the growing uterus puts increasing pressure on the stomach. Heartburn in such cases is often resistant to dietary interventions and even antacids.

Obesity. Studies suggest that obesity increases acid in the esophagus, thereby significantly increasing the risk of GERD. Evidence is weak, however. One study reported no association between excess weight at any age and the presence or severity of GERD symptoms.

People with Respiratory Diseases. People with asthma are at very high risk for GERD. A study also indicated that patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (e.g., emphysema or chronic bronchitis) were more likely to have GERD.

Smokers. Some (although not all studies) have reported a high incidence of GERD in smokers. Smoking may reduce LES muscle function, increase acid secretion, and impair protective mucus membranes. Smoking reduces salivation, which helps neutralize acid. Whether it is the smoke, nicotine, or both that triggers GERD is not clear. Some people who use nicotine patches to quit smoking, for example, experience heartburn, but it is not clear if it's the nicotine or stress that would produce acid back-up.

Alcohol. Alcohol has mixed effects on GERD. It relaxes the LES muscles and, in high amounts, may irritate the mucous membrane of the esophagus. All alcoholic beverages increase stomach acid levels. A combination of heavy alcohol use and smoking even increases the risk for esophageal cancer. (Small amounts of alcohol, however, may actually protect the mucosal layer.)

Risk Factors for Severe GERD

A 2001 study reported that following people with GERD who are at risk for severe symptoms, inflammation, or both:
  • People who use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Studies suggest that certain NSAID users are at higher risk for GERD, including older adults, women, alcohol and tobacco users, and patients with asthma, hiatal hernia, or obesity. One study reported that NSAIDs put people at risk for ulcers but not for erosive esophagitis or strictures. Interestingly, NSAIDs are being studied for protection against Barrett's esophagus.

  • People with hiatal hernia.


High Risk Children

As in adults, GERD is very common in children of all ages, but it is usually mild. Heartburn has been reported in 1.8% of three-year-olds and in 5.2% of young people between 10 and 17 years old. Children at higher risk for severe GERD are those with the following conditions:
  • Neurologic impairments.

  • Food allergies.

  • Scoliosis.

  • Cyclic vomiting.

  • Cystic fibrosis.

  • Problems in the lungs, ear, nose, or throat.

  • Any medical condition affecting the digestive tract.

Symptoms in Children

A physician should examine any child who has the following symptoms as soon as possible, particularly if these are signs of complications such as anemia, failure to gain weight, or respiratory problems. Symptoms of severe GERD in infants and small children may include, among others:
  • Chronic coughing.

  • Frequent infections.

  • Wheezing.

  • Gasping or frequent cessation in breathing while asleep (called apneas). (It should be noted that a 2001 study found no association between GERD and apneas in premature infants.)

  • Frequent vomiting in infants. It should be noted that about half of all infants up to three months regurgitate milk at least once a day. Some simply spit up; others vomit large amounts after feedings. Vomiting in infants and older children is rarely a sign of GERD, but severe vomiting should always be checked out with a physician.

  • Having to burp babies very frequently during and after feeding.
It should be noted that babies and children experience may of these symptoms without having GERD. And, an Australian study suggested that many infants who have normal irritability may be treated inappropriately for reflux disorders.

Complications in Infants and Small Children

Feeding Problems. Feeding problems may be more severe than is previously thought in children with GERD. In one study, children who had GERD and problems swallowing tended to refuse food and were late in eating solids. They also cried more and reacted more negatively in general than non-GERD babies. Such behaviors negatively effected the mothers as well. These findings were supported in an earlier study when it was reported that children at one year, who had GERD in infancy, were no longer spitting up, but still tended to have negative dining experiences ("too slow," "upsetting"). It should be noted that these children were at no greater risk for respiratory illnesses than other one-year olds.

Rare Complications. Although GERD is very common, the following complications are very rare and only occur in certain cases:

  • GERD may cause failure to thrive.

  • Feeding problems and severe vomiting may cause anemia.

  • Acid back-up may be inhaled into the airways and cause pneumonia.

  • The infant's life may be in danger if acid reflux causes spasms in the larynx severe enough to block the airways. In fact, some experts believe this action may contribute to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). More research is needed to determine whether this association is valid.

  • Associations with Infections in the Upper Airways. GERD has been associated with a higher risk for infections in the upper respiratory tract in adults. One study suggested that it may also be related to chronic ear infections in children, and that treating GERD may help clear up these infections in some children. More research is needed.

Managing GERD in Infancy

Here are some hints on managing GERD in infants:
  • During and after feeding, infants should be positioned vertically and burped frequently.

  • If a baby with GERD is fed formula, a mother should ask the doctor how to thicken it in order to prevent splashing up from the stomach.

  • Parents of infants with GERD should discuss baby's sleeping position with their pediatrician. Experts strongly recommend that all healthy infants sleep on their backs to help prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). For babies with GERD, however, lying on the back may obstruct the airways. In one study for example, infants with gastroesophageal reflux who spent prolonged periods of time in infant seats, including car seats, had more reflux than those who spent waking time on their stomachs. If the physician recommends that babies with GERD sleep on their stomachs, parents should be sure that their infant's mattress is very firm, possibly tilted up at the head, that there are no pillows, and that the baby's head is turned so that the mouth and nose are completely unobstructed.

  • Because food allergies may trigger GERD in children, parents may want to discuss a dietary plan with their physician that starts the child on formulas using non-allergenic proteins, and then add other foods back one at a time until symptoms are triggered.

Managing GERD in Children

The same drugs used in adults may be tried in children with chronic GERD. It is very important to note that some of the drugs are available over the counter but no one should give them to children without physician supervision.
  • Milder medications, such as antacids, are used first.

  • H2 blockers may be tried next. They are available over the counter and include famotidine (Pepcid AC), cimetidine (Tagamet HB), ranitidine (Zantac 75), and nizatidine (Axid AR). It should noted, however, that the FDA has issues a warning on Pepcid AC for adults with kidney problems.

  • Proton-pump inhibitors, such as omeprazole (Prilosec) and lansoprazole (Prevacid), are even more powerful agents that suppress the production of stomach acid. They may be safe and effective for children who fail the less intensive therapies. Lansoprazole is available in flavored liquid form. In one study, children tolerated it well and there were no adverse effects after six months of taking it.
Until recently, surgery was the primary treatment for children with severe complications from GERD, because drug therapies previously used had severe side effects, were ineffective, or had not been designed for children. With the introduction of the proton-pump inhibitor drugs, some children may be able to avoid surgery.



Common Symptoms

Heartburn. Heartburn is the primary symptom of gastroesophageal reflux. It is a burning sensation that radiates up from the stomach to the chest and throat. Heartburn is most likely to occur in connection with the following activities:
  • After a heavy meal.

  • Bending over.

  • Lifting.

  • Lying down, particularly on the back.
According to one study, nearly three-quarters of patients with frequent GERD symptoms experience them at night. Patients with nighttime GERD also tend to experience more severe pain than those whose symptoms occur at other times. One study found that patients with night-time pain reported levels of severity that were similar to those reported in angina and congestive heart failure.

It should be noted that the severity of heartburn does not necessarily indicate actual injury in the esophagus. For example, Barrett's esophagus, which causes precancerous changes in the esophagus, may trigger few symptoms, especially in elderly people. On the other hand, people can suffer severe heartburn without the presence of damage to the esophagus.

Dyspepsia. Up to half of GERD patients have dyspepsia, a syndrome consisting of the following:

  • Pain and discomfort in the upper abdomen,

  • Fullness in the stomach, and

  • Nausea after eating.

  • Note, people can have dyspepsia without having GERD.
Regurgitation. Regurgitation is the feeling of acid backing up in the throat. Sometimes acid regurgitates as far as the mouth and be experienced as a "wet burp." Uncommonly, it may come out forcefully as vomit.

Less Common Symptoms

Many patients with GERD do not experience heartburn or regurgitation. Instead symptoms may appear in other locations.

Chest Sensations or Pain. Patients may have the sensation that food is trapped behind the breast bone. Chest pain is a common symptom of GERD. It is very important to differentiate it from chest pain caused by heart conditions, such as angina and heart attack [ see How Is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disorder Diagnosed?]

Symptoms in the Throat. Less commonly, GERD may produce symptoms that occur in the throat:

  • Acid laryngitis. A condition that includes hoarseness, dry cough, the sensation of having a lump in the throat, and the need to repeatedly clear the throat.

  • Trouble swallowing ( dysphagia). In severe cases, patients may even choke or food may become trapped in the esophagus, causing severe chest pain. This may indicate a temporary spasm that narrows the tube, or it could also be an indication of serious esophageal damage or abnormalities.

  • Chronic sore throat.

  • Persistent hiccups.
Coughing and Respiratory Symptoms. Asthmatic symptoms like coughing and wheezing may occur. In fact, in one study, GERD alone accounted for 41.1% of cases of chronic cough in nonsmoking patients. The incidence was even higher when GERD and asthma were combined.

Chronic Nausea and Vomiting. Nausea that persists for weeks or even months and is not attributable to a common cause of stomach upset may be a symptom of acid reflux. In rare cases, vomiting can occur as often as once a day. All other causes of chronic nausea and vomiting should be ruled out, including ulcers, stomach cancer, obstruction, and pancreas or gallbladder disorders.


Nearly everyone has an attack of heartburn at some point in their lives. In the vast majority of cases the condition is temporary and mild causing only transient discomfort. I

General Outlook for People with Persistent GERD

Outlook for Adults. If patients develop persistent gastroesophageal reflux disease with frequent relapses, however, and it remains untreated, serious complications can develop over time. Such complications can include the following:
  • Ulcers.

  • Severe narrowing ( stricture) of the esophagus.

  • Erosion of the lining of the esophagus.

  • Precancerous changes in the cells of the esophagus.

  • Problems in other areas, including the teeth, throat, and airways leading to the lungs.
Outlook in Children and Infants. Small children with GERD may experience feeding problems. In rare cases, GERD can cause other complications. [See Box Gastroesophageal Reflux Disorder in Children.]

Outlook in the Elderly . Older people are at higher risk for complications from persistent GERD. The risk for recurrent and serious GERD also increases under the following conditions:

  • The esophagus is very inflamed.

  • Initial symptoms are severe.

  • Symptoms persist in spite of treatments that successfully heal the esophagus.

  • There are severe underlying muscular abnormalities.


In one study, bleeding occurred in over 8% of patients with erosive esophagitis (severe inflammation of the esophagus), which is associated with GERD. In very severe cases, the patient may detect dark-colored, tarry stools (indicating the presence of blood) or vomit blood, particularly if ulcers have developed in the esophagus. This is a sign of severe damage and requires immediate attention.

Sometimes long-term bleeding can result in iron deficiency anemia and may sometimes even require emergency transfusions. This condition can occur without heartburn or other warning symptoms, or even obvious blood in the stools.

Barrett's Esophagus

A minority of patients with persistent GERD are at risk for Barrett's esophagus. This condition results in abnormal cellular changes in the esophagus that puts a patient at risk for cancer. [For detailed information see box Barrett's Esophagus.]

Asthma and Other Respiratory Disorders

Asthma. Asthma and GERD often occur together. Studies report that reflux disorder coincides with between 32% and 80% of asthma cases. Some theories for the causal connection between GERD and asthma are as follows:
  • Acid leaking from the lower esophagus in GERD stimulates the vagus nerves , which run through the gastrointestinal tract. These stimulated nerves in turn trigger the nearby airways in the lung to constrict, which causes asthma symptoms.

  • Acid back-up that reaches the mouth may be inhaled into the airways ( aspirated). Here, the acid triggers a reaction in the airways that cause asthma symptoms.
There is some evidence that asthma causes GERD [ see What Causes Gastroesophageal Reflux Disorder? above ]. The hypothesis that GERD causes asthma (rather than the reverse) is supported by some clinical trials reporting that treating GERD in patients who also have asthma reduce symptoms of both conditions in some patients who also have asthma. Not all such patients report improved asthma symptoms with GERD treatments, and they do not appear to have much effect, in any case, on actual lung function. One study suggested that this approach works in asthmatic individuals who tended to be overweight and to have severe GERD in the lower part of the esophagus.

Other Respiratory and Airway Conditions. Current studies indicate an association between GERD and various upper respiratory problems that occur in the sinuses, ear and nasal passages, nasal passages, and airways of the lung. People with GERD appear to have an above-average risk for chronic bronchitis, chronic sinusitis, emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis (lung scarring), and recurrent pneumonia. If a person inhales fluid from the esophagus (aspirates) into the lungs, serious pneumonia can occur. It is not yet known whether treatment of GERD would also reduce the risk for these respiratory conditions.

Dental Problems

Dental erosion is a very common problem in GERD patients due to the acid backing up into the mouth and corroding tooth enamel.

Chronic Throat Conditions

An estimated 20% to 60% of patients with GERD have atypical symptoms in the throat (hoarseness, sore throat, others) without any significant heartburn. A failure to diagnose and treat GERD may lead to persistent throat conditions such as chronic laryngitis, hoarseness, difficulty in speaking, sore throat, cough, constant throat clearing, and granuloma (soft, pink bumps) on the vocal cords.

Impaired Swallowing

If the esophagus becomes severely injured over time, narrowed regions called strictures can develop, which may impair swallowing (dysphagia). Food may become blocked in some cases. Stretching procedures or surgery may be required to restore normal swallowing. Paradoxically, strictures may actually improve other GERD symptoms by helping to prevent acid from traveling up the esophagus. [ Also see Treatments for Barrett's Esophagus below .]

Sleep Apnea

GERD commonly occurs with obstructive sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing stops temporarily but repeatedly during sleep. It is not clear which condition is responsible for the other, but GERD is particularly severe when both conditions occur together. One study reported that spasms in the vocal cords caused by acid reflux may block the flow of air and cause sleep apnea in adults. On the other hand, other research suggests that the disordered breathing in sleep apnea alters pressure in the chest area and causes GERD. Both conditions may also have risk factors in common, such as sleeping on the back. [ See the Well-Connected Report #65 Sleep Apnea .]


Diagnostic Steps

If a patient suffers from chronic heartburn, chances are good the patient also has GERD. (Occasional heartburn does not necessarily indicate the presence of GERD.) The following is the general diagnostic approach:
  • A physician can usually make an easy diagnosis of GERD if the patient finds relief from persistent heartburn and acid regurgitation after taking antacids for short periods.

  • If the diagnosis is uncertain but the physician still suspects GERD, a drug trial using omeprazole (Prilosec) identifies 80% to 90% of people with he conditions. Omeprazole is a proton-pump inhibitor that blocks stomach acid secretion [ see What Drugs Are Used for Treating GERD? below].
Laboratory or more invasive tests, including endoscopy, may be required if the diagnosis is still uncertain, if atypical symptoms are present, if Barrett's esophagus is suspected, or if complications, such as signs of bleeding or difficulty in swallowing, are present. Some of these tests are described below.

Barium-Swallow Radiograph

A barium swallow radiograph (x-ray) is useful for identifying structural abnormalities and erosive esophagitis (severe inflammation). When taking this test, the patient drinks a solution containing barium, then x-rays are taken. This test can show stricture, active ulcer craters, hiatal hernia, erosion, or other abnormalities. The test cannot reveal mild irritation.

Upper Endoscopy

Upper endoscopy, also called esophagogastroduodenoscopy or panendoscopy, is more accurate than a barium-swallow radiograph. It is also more invasive and expensive.

Endoscopy to Diagnose GERD. Endoscopy may be performed either in a hospital or in a doctor's office:

  • First, the patient should eat nothing for at least six hours before the procedure.

  • The doctor administers a local anesthetic using an oral spray and an intravenous sedative to suppress the gag reflex and to relax the patient.

  • Next, the physician places an endoscope (a thin flexible plastic tube containing a tiny camera) into the patient's mouth and down the esophagus. The procedure does not interfere with breathing. It may be slightly uncomfortable for some patients; others are able to sleep through it.

  • Once the endoscope is in place, the tiny camera allows the physician to see the surface of the esophagus and to search for abnormalities, including hiatal hernia and damage to the mucus lining.

  • The physician performs a biopsy (the removal and microscopic examination of small tissue sections). The biopsy may detect tissue injury indicative of GERD. It may also be used to detect cancer or other conditions, such as yeast ( Candida albicans ) or viral infections (e.g., herpes simplex and cytomegalovirus). Such infections are more likely to occur in people with impaired immune systems.

  • Complications from the procedure are uncommon. If they occur, are almost always mild and typically include minor bleeding from the biopsy site or irritation where medications were injected.
If a patient has moderate to severe GERD symptoms and the procedure reveals injury in the esophagus, usually no further tests are needed to confirm a diagnosis. The test is not fool-proof, however. A visual view misses about half of esophageal abnormalities.

PH Monitor Examination

The (ambulatory) pH monitor examination may be employed to determine acid back-up. It is useful when endoscopy has not detected damage to the mucous lining in the esophagus, but GERD symptoms are present. The procedure typically is as follows:
  • The physician inserts a tubular probe through the nose that runs down into the esophagus.

  • The tube is left in place for 24 hours. The patient can engage in normal activities during this time.

  • Over this period the probe measures the amount of acid backing up in the esophagus and the pattern of occurrence throughout the day.

  • The patient reports any other symptoms, such as wheezing and coughing, and their timing. This helps the physician to determine if asthmatic or other respiratory symptoms are related to acid reflux.
It should be noted that the probe measures only acidic content. Other digestive agents in the stomach that can be causing harm may be overlooked.

This is an awkward and distressing diagnostic tool. A newer investigative approach uses a tiny probe that is inserted in the throat and which transmits pH data. It is removed within 10 days.


Manometry is a technique that measures muscular pressure. It employs a tube containing various openings, which is placed through the esophagus. As the muscular action of the esophagus exerts pressure on the tube in various locations, a computer connected to the tube measures it. It is useful for the following situations:
  • To determine if a GERD patient would benefit from surgery by measuring pressure exerted by the lower esophagus sphincter muscles (LES).

  • To detect impaired stomach motility (an inability of the muscles to contract normally), which cannot be surgically corrected with standard procedures.

  • To determine if impaired peristalsis or other motor abnormalities are causing chest pain in people with GERD who have these symptoms.

Other Tests

Blood and Stool Tests. Stool tests may show traces of blood that are not visible. Blood tests for anemia should be performed if bleeding is suspected.

Bernstein Test. For patients with chest pain in which the diagnosis is uncertain, a procedure called the Bernstein test may be useful, although it is rarely used. A tube is inserted through the patient's nasal passage. Then solutions of hydrochloric acid and saline are administered separately into the esophagus. If the acid infusion causes symptoms and the saline solution does not, then a diagnosis of GERD is established.

Ruling out Other Disorders

Because many illnesses share similar symptoms, careful analysis and consideration of the patient's history is key to an accurate diagnosis. The following are only a few of the conditions that could accompany or resemble GERD.

Dyspepsia. The most common disorder confused with GERD is dyspepsia, which is defined as pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen without heartburn. Specific symptoms may include a feeling fullness, particularly early in the meal, bloating, and nausea. It should noted that dyspepsia can be a symptom of GERD, but does not always occur with GERD. The drug metoclopramide (Reglan) helps stomach emptying and may be helpful for this condition.

Angina and Chest Pain. About 600,000 people come to emergency rooms each year with chest pains. Over 100,000 of these people are believed to actually have GERD. Chest pain from both GERD and from severe angina can occur after a heavy meal. In general, a heart problem is probably not responsible for the pain if it is worse at night and does not occur after exercise. It should be noted that the two conditions often coexist. In fact, there is some theory that in patients with coronary artery disease, acid reflux may actually trigger angina. In such cases, experts believe that acid in the esophagus may activate nerves that temporarily impair blood flow to the heart.

Asthma. Because asthma and GERD commonly occur together, physicians must be sure that each disorder is diagnosed accurately.

Other Diseases. Many gastrointestinal diseases (e.g., inflammatory bowel disease, ulcers, intestinal cancers) can cause GERD, but they are often easily identified, since they have other symptoms and affects other areas of the intestinal tract.


Lifestyle Changes

Acid suppression continues to be the mainstay for treating GERD. The aim of drug therapy is to reduce the amount of acid present and improve any abnormalities in muscle function of the lower esophagus sphincter (LES), the esophagus, or the stomach.

Most cases of gastroesophageal reflux are mild and can be managed with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications and antacids. [ See What Lifestyle Measures can Help Prevent and Manage gastroesophageal reflux Disease?]

Drug Treatments

Experts argue about the best way to initiate drug treatment for GERD with typical symptoms (heartburn and regurgitation) that do not respond to lifestyle changes or antacids. Diagnostic procedures using endoscopy and other tests might be required to confirm GERD and rule out other disorders if this conservative approach fails to relieve symptoms.

Patients who do not respond to lifestyle measures or are diagnosed at a late stage may be started on more or less or potent agents depending on complications at diagnosis. It should be noted that even when symptoms are completely relieved by medication, they usually return within a few months after drug treatment has stopped. Long-term maintenance may be necessary. [ See What Drugs Are Used For Treating Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease? below.]

  • Step-up. With a step-up drug approach the patient first tries an H2 blocker drug, which is available over the counter. They include famotidine (Pepcid AC), cimetidine (Tagamet HB), ranitidine (Zantac 75), and nizatidine (Axid AR). If the condition fails to improve, therapy is "stepped up" to the more powerful proton-pump inhibitor, usually omeprazole (Prilosec).

  • Step-down. For patients with complications, a step- down approach may be a better option, in which a proton-pump inhibitor (PPIs), such as omeprazole (Prilosec), is used first. Treatment is then "stepped down" to milder drugs, such as the H1 blockers, as the patient improves.
Some physicians argue that that the step-down approach should be used for most patients. One study conducted on VA patients suggested that it is more cost-effective than the step-up approach, and quality of life is about the same. Others argue, however, that this study was limited, and the results could not necessarily apply to the general population.

It drugs fail to relieve symptoms, the physician should look for other conditions. In some cases, bile, not acid, may be responsible for symptoms, so that acid-reducing or blocking agents would not be helpful. (Bile is a fluid that is present in the small intestine and gallbladder.)


Surgery [ see What Are The Surgical Treatments For Gastroesophageal Reflux? below] may be indicated under certain circumstances:
  • If lifestyle changes and drug treatments have failed.

  • In patients with medical complications.

  • In younger people with chronic GERD, who face a lifetime of expense and inconvenience with maintenance drug treatment.

Surgery versus Drug Treatments for Chronic GERD

There is considerable and intense debate about the advantages of surgery versus medications for chronic GERD.

Because minimally invasive surgical procedures are becoming more widely available, some physicians are recommending surgery as treatment of choice for many more patients with chronic GERD. The reasons are as follows:

  • Acid-suppressing treatment does not heal the condition, while surgery offers a possible cure. Furthermore, persistent GERD appears to be much more serious than previously believed, and the long-term safety of acid suppression is still uncertain.

  • Only surgery improves regurgitation.

  • Studies report that over the long term, patients who have surgery cost the health system less than those taking medication. (Although some studies have questioned this benefit, finding that most surgical patients return to medication.)
Nevertheless, there are important concerns and the evidence is turning more strongly toward medication as the first option. Of special note, a 2001 long-term study comparing surgical and medical patients suggested that surgery may be less effective for severe GERD than is commonly thought. Over 60% of patients still required antireflux medications after surgery. Furthermore, the study found no protection from cancer with surgery (which was supported by a 2001 Swedish study). Of additional concern was a higher risk for cardiovascular deaths in the surgery group, although there was no explanation for this finding.

Some experts argued, however, that only 10% of the surgical patients in the first study actually had reflex bad enough to warrant proton-pump inhibitors. Another 2001 study supported this claim. About 14% of patients in the study remained on PPIs after surgery, although 80% of them were taking the agent for reasons other than reflux. Some expert, then, still recommend surgery as the preferred approach for erosive esophagitis and the primary treatment for Barrett's esophagus.

Still, the study discussed above has weakened the current argument for the benefits of surgery. Anti-GERD procedures have many complications and high failure rates (ranging from 30% at five years to 63% at 10 years.) New surgical procedures may improve current results, but at this time patients should discuss surgery very carefully with both a surgeon and medical physician.


Dietary Changes

People with heartburn should first try lifestyle and dietary changes. In one study, 44% of patients who experienced symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) reported improvement after changing their diet. Some suggestions are the following:
  • People with heartburn should avoid or reduce consumption of foods and beverages that contain caffeine, chocolate, peppermint, spearmint, and alcohol. Both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee increase acid secretion.

  • All carbonated drinks increase the risk for GERD.

  • Although physicians often advise patients with GERD to cut down on fatty foods, studies are finding no evidence that a low-fat or high-fat meal make any difference in symptom exacerbation. Better studies are needed to confirm this. In any case, as a rule, it is always wise to avoid saturated fats (which are from animal products), and cut down on all fats if one is overweight.

  • Increasing protein may help strengthen muscles in the muscle valve. Patients should choose low-fat or skim dairy products, poultry, or fish, in such cases.

  • Whole grain products rich in selenium may have some protective role against dangerous cells changes in Barrett's esophagus.

  • Patients should have a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, although avoid acidic vegetables and fruits (e.g., oranges, lemons, grapefruit, pineapple, tomatoes).

  • Patients who have trouble swallowing should avoid tough meats, vegetables with skins, doughy bread, and pasta.

Prevention of Nighttime GERD

Nearly three-quarters of patients with frequent GERD symptoms have them at night. Patients with nighttime GERD also tend to experience severe pain. It is very important to take preventative measures before going to sleep. Some suggestions for preventing acid reflux at night are as follows:
  • After meals, take a walk or, at the very least, remain upright.

  • Avoid bedtime snacks.

  • When going to bed, try lying on the left side rather than on the right. The stomach is located higher than the esophagus when a person sleeps on the right side, which can put pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), increasing the risk for fluid back-up.

  • Sleep in a tilted position to help keep acid in the stomach at night. To do this, raise the bed at an angle using four -to six- inch blocks at the head of the bed and use a wedge-support to elevate the top half of the body. (Extra pillows that only raise the head actually increase the risk for reflux.)

Other Preventive Measures

  • Quitting smoking is essential.

  • People who are overweight should try to reduce food intake.

  • People with GERD should avoid tight clothing, particularly around the abdomen.

  • If possible, GERD patients should avoid nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), or naproxen (Aleve), among others. Tylenol (acetaminophen) is a good alternative pain reliever.
Although gum chewing is commonly believed to increase the risk for GERD symptoms, one study reported it might be helpful. Because saliva helps neutralize acid and contains a number of other factors that protect the esophagus, chewing gum 30 minutes after a meal has been found to help relieve heartburn and even protect against damage caused by GERD. Chewing on anything at all can help since it stimulates saliva production.



Antacids neutralize digestive acids and are the primary drugs for mild symptoms. They are best used alone for relief of occasional and unpredictable episodes of heartburn. They all work by neutralizing the acid in the stomach. They may also stimulate the defensive systems in the stomach by increasing bicarbonate and mucous secretion. Many antacids are available without prescription and are the first drugs recommended to relieve heartburn and mild symptoms. Despite the many brands, they all rely on various combinations of three basic ingredients: magnesium, calcium, or aluminum.

Magnesium. Magnesium salts are available in the form of magnesium carbonate, magnesium trisilicate, and most commonly, magnesium hydroxide (Milk of Magnesia). The major side effect of magnesium salts is diarrhea. Magnesium salts offered in combination products with aluminum (Mylanta and Maalox) balance the side effects of diarrhea and constipation.

Calcium. Calcium carbonate (Tums, Titralac, and Alka-2) is a potent and rapid acting antacid that can cause constipation. These antacids are actually sources of calcium. There have been rare cases of hypercalcemia (elevated levels of calcium in the blood) in people taking calcium carbonate for long periods of time. This can lead to kidney failure and is very dangerous. None of the other antacids have this side effect.

Aluminum. Aluminum salts (Amphogel, Alternagel) are also available. The most common side effect of antacids containing aluminum salts is constipation. People who take large amounts of antacids that contain aluminum may also be at risk for calcium loss, which can lead to osteoporosis.

It is generally believed that liquid antacids work faster and are more potent than tablets, although evidence suggests that they all work equally well. Antacids can interact with a number of drugs in the intestines by reducing their absorption. These drugs include tetracycline, ciprofloxacin (Cipro), propranolol (Inderal), captopril (Capoten), and H2 blockers. Interactions can be avoided by taking the drugs one hour before or three hours after taking the antacid. Long-term use of nearly any antacid increases the risk for kidney stones.

H2 Blockers

H2 blockers impede acid production by blocking or antagonizing the actions of histamine, a chemical found in the body that encourages acid secretion in the stomach. They are available over the counter and provide symptom relief in about half of GERD patients. It takes between a half hour to 90 minutes for them to work, but benefits last for hours. The drugs are usually taken at bedtime. Some people may need to take them twice a day.

H2 blockers inhibit acid secretion for six to 24 hours and are very useful for people who need persistent acid suppression. They may also prevent heartburn episodes in people who are able to predict its occurrence. In some studies, H2 blockers improved asthmatic symptoms in people who suffer from both conditions. A 2001 study suggested, however, that they rarely provide complete symptoms relief for chronic heart burn and dyspepsia and they have done little to reduce office visits to physicians for GERD.

Four H2 blockers are currently available in the US:

  • Famotidine (Pepcid AC). Famotidine (Pepcid AC) is the most potent H2 blocker. The most common side effect of famotidine is headache, which occurs in 4.7% of people who take it. Famotidine is virtually free of drug interactions but the FDA has just issued a warning on its use in patients with kidney problems. [ See Box FDA Warning for Famotidine (Pepcid AC).]

  • Cimetidine (Tagamet). Cimetidine (Tagamet) is the oldest H2 blocker. It has few side effects; approximately 1% of people taking it will experience mild temporary diarrhea, dizziness, rash, or headache. Cimetidine interacts with a number of commonly used medications, such as phenytoin, theophylline, and warfarin. Long-term use of excessive doses (more than 3 grams a day) may cause impotence or breast enlargement in men. These problems resolve after the drug is discontinued.

  • Ranitidine (Zantac). Ranitidine (Zantac) interacts with very few drugs. In a recent study, ranitidine provided more pain relief and healed ulcers more quickly than cimetidine in people less than 60 years old, but there was no difference in older patients. A common side effect associated with ranitidine is headache, which occurs in about 3% of the people who take it.

  • Nizatidine (Axid) Nizatidine (Axid) is a new H2 blocker. It is nearly free of side effects and drug interactions.

FDA Warning for Famotidine (Pepcid AC)

Famotidine is excreted primarily by the kidney. This can pose a danger to people with kidney problems. Physicians are now being advised by the US Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada to reduce the dose and increase the time between doses in patients with kidney failure. Use of the drug in those with impaired kidney function can affect the central nervous system and may result in anxiety, depression, insomnia or drowsiness, and mental disturbances.

Drug Combinations. Combinations of over-the-counter antacids and H2 blockers may be the best approach for many people who experience heartburn after eating. Both classes of drugs are effective in relieving GERD, but have different timing. Antacids work within a few minutes but are short-acting, while H2 blockers take longer but benefits are long lasting. Pepcid AC combined with an antacid (calcium carbonate and magnesium) is now available as Pepcid Complete.

Long Term Complications. In most cases, these agents have good safety profiles and few side effects. H2 blockers can interact with other drugs, although some less so than other. In all cases, however, the physician should be made aware of any other drugs a patient is taking.

Some experts are concerned that the use of acid-blocking drugs may mask the symptoms of ulcers, if they are present, and increase the risk for serious complications from them. These agents provide no protection against Barrett's esophagus. Also of concern are reports that long-term acid suppression with these drugs may cause cancerous changes in the stomach in patients who also have untreated H. pylori infections. More research is needed. Anyone with kidney problems should use famotidine only under the direction of a physician. [ See Box FDA Warning for Famotidine (Pepcid AC).]

Proton-Pump Inhibitors

Proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) suppress the production of stomach acid and work by inhibiting the molecule in the stomach glands that is responsible for acid secretion, which is called the gastric acid pump .

The standard agent has been omeprazole (Prilosec). Newer oral PPIs include lansoprazole (Prevacid), esomeprazole (Nexium), and rabeprazole (Aciphex). Pantoprozole (Protonix) is administered intravenously and may be useful for patients who cannot take oral medications.

Studies report significant relief from PPIs in most patients with heartburn who have no esophagus injuries. They may also be helpful in patients with chronic laryngitis that is suspected to be caused by GERD. The newer agents provide quicker symptom relief compared to omeprazole. However, a 2002 comparison study suggested that esomeprazole was the only newer oral PPI to show any significant advantage over omeprazole (Prilosec). It is not clear how effective any of these agents are for patients with erosive esophagitis. In one study comparing lansoprazole with omeprazole, lansoprazole provided faster symptoms relief, but there was little difference after eight weeks, and with both drugs only 12% to 14% of patients reported being symptom-free at the end of the period. In any case all PPIs are more effective than the H2 blockers.

In addition to relieving most common symptoms, including heartburn, proton-pump inhibitors also have the following advantages:

  • They are effective in relieving chest pain and laryngitis caused by GERD.

  • They may also reduce acid reflux that typically occurs during strenuous exercise.
Patients with impaired esophageal muscular action are still likely to experience acid breakthrough and reflux at night. Proton-pump inhibitors also may have little or no effect on regurgitation or asthmatic symptoms. Some experts believe, however, that they should be the first drugs of choice even for patients with milder symptoms. At this time, these drugs are recommended for the following patients:
  • Those with moderate symptoms that do not respond to H2 blockers.

  • Those with severe symptoms.

  • Those who have respiratory complications.

  • Those who have persistent nausea.

  • Those who have esophageal injury.
Side Effects. Side effects are uncommon, but can include an allergic reaction, headache, stomach pain, diarrhea, and flatulence. Although studies suggest that proton-pump inhibitors do not pose an increased risk of birth defects, pregnant or nursing mothers should avoid them if possible. These agents appear to be safe and effective for children with severe GERD and may help some avoid surgery.

Long-Term Complications. The use of proton-pump inhibitors by people with H. pylori may reduce acid secretion sufficiently to cause a condition called atrophic gastritis (chronic inflammation of the stomach). Some experts are concerned that such actions may increase the risk for cancer. To date, however, there have been no reports of any higher incidence with long-term use of any proton-pump inhibitor. Some evidence also suggests that long-term use of high-dose PPIs may produce vitamin B12 deficiencies, but studies are needed to confirm any significance of this risk.

Agents that Protect the Mucus Lining (Sucralfate)

Sucralfate (Carafate) protects the mucus lining in the gastrointestinal tract. It seems to work by sticking to an ulcer crater and protecting it from damage due to stomach acid and pepsin. It may be helpful for maintenance therapy in people with mild to moderate GERD. Other than constipation, which occurs in 2.2% of patients, the drug has few side effects. Sucralfate interacts with a wide variety of drugs, however, including warfarin, phenytoin, and tetracycline.

Anti-Spasm Drugs

Baclofen, a gamma-amino butyric acid agonist used to reduce muscle spasms, has been shown to decrease the number of reflux episodes (as much as 70% in one study), and to reduce the episodes of lower esophageal sphincter (LES) relaxation, a major factor in GERD.


Fundoplication (General Guidelines)

The standard surgical treatment for GERD is fundoplication. The goal of this procedure is twofold:
  • To increase LES pressure and therefore prevent acid back-up (reflux),

  • To repair any present hiatal hernia.
There are two primary approaches: the more invasive open fundoplication and the less invasive laparoscopic fundoplication. In general, the overall long-term benefits are similar:
  • Some studies report that more than 90% of patients are free of heartburn after the operation and satisfied with their choice, even after five years.

  • The procedure relieved GERD-induced coughs and some other respiratory symptoms in up to 85% of patients. (Its effect on asthma associated with GERD, however, is unclear.)

  • It may enhance stomach emptying.

  • It improves peristalsis in about half of patients. (It may actually cause abnormal peristalsis in about 14% of patients, although in such cases the problem does not appear to be very significant.)

  • Two important studies in 2001 reported, however, that surgery is neither a cure for GERD nor does it prevent cancer.
Candidates. Fundoplication is recommended for patients whose condition includes one or more of the following:
  • Esophagitis (inflamed esophagus).

  • Recurrent or persistent symptoms in spite of drug treatment.

  • Strictures.

  • In children who fail to gain or maintain weight.
It should be noted that fundoplication has little benefit for patients with impaired stomach motility (an inability for the muscles to move spontaneously).

The Open Nissen Fundoplication Procedure

Until recently, most fundoplication procedures for GERD have been the 360 ° Nissen fundoplication. This is a called an open procedure because it requires wide surgical incisions.
  • With this procedure, the physician wraps the upper part of the stomach ( fundus) completely around the esophagus to form a collar-like structure.

  • The collar places pressure on the LES and prevents stomach fluids from backing up in to the esophagus.

  • Open fundoplication requires a six- to 10-day hospital stay.

Laparoscopic Fundoplication

The standard invasive fundoplication procedure has been replaced in many cases by a less invasive fundoplication procedure that uses laparoscopy. In the operation:
  • Tiny incisions are made in the abdomen.

  • Small instruments and a tiny camera are inserted through tubes through which the surgeon can view the region.

  • The surgeon creates a collar using the fundus, although the area is smaller to work with.

  • performed by experienced surgeons, the procedure shows results that are equal to those of standard open fundoplication and recovery time is faster.

  • laparoscopic fundoplication appears to be safe and effective in people of all ages, even very small babies. Laparoscopy is more difficult to perform in certain patients, including those who are obese, who have a short esophagus, or who have a history of previous surgery in the upper abdominal area. It may also be less successful in relieving atypical symptoms of GERD including cough, abnormal chest pain, and choking. In about 8% of laparoscopies, it is necessary to convert to open surgery during the procedure because of unforeseen complications.

Other Variations

There are now a number of variants of fundoplication procedures. Examples include the following:
  • Toupét fundoplication employs only a partial wrap. Partial fundoplication procedures may be more effective in patients with poor or no esophageal motility (spontaneous muscle contraction). Those with normal motility, who may do better with the full-circle wrap.

  • Others use a very short and "floppy" Nissen full wrap.
Many surgeons report that such limited fundoplications result in earlier feeding and discharge from the hospital and a lower incidence of complications (trouble swallowing, gas bloating, gagging) than the full Nissan fundoplication. A British study, however, reported no significant differences in swallowing problems.

Postoperative Problems and Complications after Fundoplication

Postoperative problems can include a delay in intestinal functioning causing bloating, gagging, and vomiting. This usually resolves in a few weeks. If symptoms persist or if they start weeks or months after surgery, particularly if vomiting is present, then surgical complications are likely. Complications include the following:
  • An excessively wrapped fundus. In such cases, patients may have difficulty swallowing or experience gagging, gas, bloating, or inability to burp. Both procedures pose a risk for dysphagia (trouble swallowing). It is unclear whether laparoscopy has a higher risk for this complication than the open procedure. In one study, 20% of patients had trouble swallowing after laparoscopy. Dysphagia may be temporary in most patients, however, with one study reporting persistent swallowing problems in only 4% of patients.

  • Bowel obstruction.

  • Wound infection.

  • Injury to nearby organs.

  • Respiratory complications, such as a collapsed lung. These are uncommon, particularly with laparoscopic fundoplication.

  • Muscle spasms after swallowing food. This can cause intense pain and patients may require a liquid diet, sometimes for weeks. This is a rare complication in most patients, but can be very high in children with neurologic abnormalities. Such children are, unfortunately, at very high risk for GERD in the first place.
Reasons for Treatment Failure. Long-term failure rates after fundoplication have been reported at 30% after five year to 63% after 10 years. Hiatal herniation is the most common reason for surgical failure and the need for a repeat fundoplication. Other common reasons for reoperation include breakdown, slippage, and excessive tightness of the wrap. Surgeon experience can lessen complication risks. Some studies have reported repeat operations after open procedures in between 9% and 30% of cases and 13% after laparoscopy. (Repeat surgery usually has good results.)

Repairing the Lower Esophagus Sphincter LES

A number of approved and experimental non-invasive procedures involve repairing the lower esophagus sphincter (LES) by using endoscopy.

Endoscopic Gastroplasty. Endoscopic gastroplasty (sometimes referred to as Bard's procedure) employs an endoscope and tiny "sewing machine" containing sutures, which stitch weakened areas in the LES, creating folds intended to stiffen and strengthen it. Early studies are promising. This procedure requires highly expert surgeons and is not widely available. long-term risks are also unknown.

Radiofrequency Energy. Radiofrequency energy generated from the tip of a needle (sometimes called the Stretta procedure) is under investigation. The objective is to heat and destroy tissue in the problem spots in the LES. Either the resulting scar tissue strengthens the muscle, or the heat kills the nerves that caused the malfunctioning. Patients may experience some chest or stomach pain afterwards. Few serious side effects have been reported, although some cases of perforation have been reported. Studies are mixed on its benefits, and its long-term advantages are still unclear.

Plexiglas Bead Implantation. Experimental work has shown positive short-term results for repairing the lower esophagus using an endoscopic implantation of a gel containing Plexiglas beads (polymethylmethacrylate, or PMMA). This treatment is used to fill out wrinkles and investigators hope it may increase the thickness of the esophagus. In one study symptoms were less severe and there were no serious complications following implantation, but more research is needed.

Surgical Treatments for GERD Complications in the Esophagus

Bleeding. Endoscopic treatment of bleeding involves using a probe passed through the endoscopic tube that applies electricity or heat to coagulate blood and stop the bleeding.

Strictures. Strictures (abnormally narrowed regions) may need to be dilated (opened) with endoscopy. Dilation may be performed by inflating a balloon in the passageway. About 30% of patients who need this procedure require a series of dilation treatments over a long duration in order to fully open the passageway. Long-term use of proton-pump inhibitors may reduce the duration.


National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, Two Information Way, Bethesda, MD 20892-3570. Call (301-654-3810) or on the Internet ( )
Offers patient information and educational materials.

American Gastroenterological Association,American Digestive Health Foundation, 7910 Woodmont Avenue, 7th Floor, Bethesda, MD 20814.Call (301 654-2055) or call (800-NO-ULCER) or on the Internet (

American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, 13 Elm Street, Manchester, MA 01944-1314. On the Internet (

Society for Surgery of the Alimentary Tract, Inc., 13 Elm Street, Manchester, MA 01944-1314. Call ((978) 526-8330) or on the Internet (

American College of Gastroenterology, 4900 B South 31 St., Arlington, VA 22206. (

Helicobacter Pylori Foundation, Box 7965, Charlottesville, VA 22902 on the Internet (

Pediatric/Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association (PAGER, PO Box 1153, Germantown, MD 20875-1153. Call (301-601-9541) or on the Internet (

American College of Gastroenterology, 4900 B South 31 St., Arlington, VA 22206. Call (703-820-7400) or (

Children's Motility Disorder Foundation, Peachtree Center, South Tower, Suite 1430, Peachtree St., Atlanta, GA 30303 (

Helicobacter Pylori Foundation, P.O. Box 7965, Charlottesville, VA 22906-7965. On the Internet ( Includes FAQ's, links, and on-line discussion.

International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) PO Box 17864, Milwaukee, WI 53217. Call (1-888-964-2001) or (

Websites of Interest:

International foundation for functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (


Review Date: March 2002

This Report Reviewed by:

Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital


Well-Connected reports are written and updated by experienced medical writers and reviewed and edited by the in-house editors and a board of physicians who have faculty positions at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Neither Harvard Medical School nor Massachusetts General Hospital, as institutions, review or endorse their content. The reports are distinguished from other information sources available to patients and health care consumers by their quality, detail of information, and currency. These reports are not intended as a substitute for medical professional help or advice but are to be used only as an aid in understanding current medical knowledge. A physician should always be consulted for any health problem or medical condition. The reports may not be copied without the express permission of the publisher.

Board of Editors

Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital

Stephen A. Cannistra, MD, Oncology, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Director, Gynecologic Medical Oncology, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

John E. Godine, MD, PhD, Metabolism, Harvard Medical School; Associate Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital

Edwin Huang, MD, Gynecology, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital

Daniel Heller, MD, Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School; Associate Pediatrician, Massachusetts General Hospital; Active Staff, Children's Hospital

Paul C. Shellito, MD, Surgery, Harvard Medical School; Associate Visiting Surgeon, Massachusetts General Hospital

Theodore A. Stern, MD, Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School; Psychiatrist and Chief, Psychiatric Consultation Service, Massachusetts General Hospital


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