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Gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD, is a common condition where contents from the stomach — including food, acid and bile — come back into the esophagus, causing a burning feeling and other painful symptoms. While the most common symptom is heartburn, you can also have GERD without heartburn.

WakeMed’s dedicated gastroenterologists are experts at diagnosing and treating GERD, through lifestyle modifications, medications and surgery.

Symptoms of GERD

Often referred to as acid reflux, the most common symptom of GERD is chronic heartburn (occurring twice a week or more), which is a burning pain in the chest that’s more common after eating and at night.

Other common symptoms of GERD include:

  • Sour taste in the mouth
  • Chest pain that can mimic a heart attack
  • Choking sensation
  • Sore throat or hoarseness/loss of voice after waking up
  • Regurgitation of food when bending over or lying down
  • Nausea

Less common symptoms of GERD include:

  • Frequent throat clearing
  • Chronic cough
  • Recurrent pneumonia
  • Chronic sinus infection
  • Night-time asthma

GERD is more common in people who are obese and in those who have a hiatal hernia, a condition where a portion of the stomach is within the chest. In this situation, the lower sphincter of the esophagus does not close completely.

Very rarely, esophageal cancer can occur as a complication of chronic long-standing GERD.

Listen to a one-minute overview of GERD by one of our physicians.

Diagnosing GERD

If symptoms are affecting your quality of life, or if you find it difficult to swallow, have chest pain, are losing weight, are throwing up blood or coffee grounds, or are having red or black stools, you should see a gastroenterologist to determine if you have GERD.

Our physicians start by taking a detailed patient history and a review of symptoms. Usually, this is enough to diagnose GERD. Sometimes, we may perform an endoscopy to look at the inside of the esophagus.

If you’re having severe chest pain, especially if combined with difficulty breathing, seek immediate medical help. Chest pain can be a sign of a heart attack.

Treating GERD

Mild forms of GERD can often be treated with diet and lifestyle changes, which include:

  • Eating small meals
  • Avoiding foods that seem to trigger symptoms (including alcohol, fatty foods, chocolate, excessive caffeine, peppermint and tomatoes)
  • Waiting a few hours after eating before laying down
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Wearing loose clothing
  • Avoiding late night snacks
  • Quitting smoking
  • Elevating the head of the bed to 30 degrees. This can help prevent stomach contents from backing up into the esophagus.

Over-the-counter medications, such as Zantac, Pepcid and Tagamet can also help mild GERD.

Moderate and severe GERD may require long-term treatment with proton pump inhibitors (PPI), which block the enzyme in the wall of the stomach that produces acid. PPIs include Nexium, Prilosec, Prevacid, and Protonix. These medications are available over-the-counter for short-term use, but should be prescribed by a doctor when needed for more than 2 weeks.

In rare cases, surgery may be required, either by traditional methods, or using the TIF (transoral incisionless fundoplication) procedure. Both options repair or recreate the anti-reflux valve that keeps the stomach acids from flowing back into the esophagus, however the TIF procedure requires no abdominal incisions and has fewer complications.

Make an Appointment

If you or someone you care for is experiencing worrisome symptoms, we encourage you to make an appointment with one of our adult gastroenterologists, pediatric gastroenterologist or colorectal surgeons.