Why you should not ignore persistent heartburn

Why you should not ignore persistent heartburn

Acid reflux is very common and most people experience it at some point of their lives. In Kenya though no studies have been done on exact figures, about 1 to 2 in every ten people suffer from the acid reflux.

Over 50 percent will have reflux symptoms over a 12 month period. The condition becomes a problem when it persists and affects ones daily activities.

Frequent heartburns and regurgitation are the most common symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which causes the stomach acid and digestive enzymes to leak backwards into the oesophagus (the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach).

The disease seems to be increasing worldwide with obesity and advancing age.

Long-standing severe GERD causes changes in the cells within the lining of the oesophagus, which can become either pre-cancerous, or cancerous. The condition is referred to as ‘Barrett’s Oesophagus’ and it occurs in about ten per cent of people with GERD.

Most patients with GERD have either non-erosive reflux disease (NERD) or erosive oesophagitis. If you have ongoing reflux but experience little to no relief from acid blocking medications, you may have what is known as non-erosive reflux disease or NERD, which is a sub-category of GERD.

NERD has GERD-like symptoms, but does not show any signs of injury to the esophagus when an upper endoscopy is performed. This is used to assess GERD-related esophageal mucosal injury such as erosions, ulceration, stricture (narrowing of oesophagus), Barrett’s oesophagus, and others.

Treatment for most people with GERD includes lifestyle changes and medication. There are some specific foods people suffering from GERD should avoid because they promote reflux. These foods include peppermint, chocolate, caffeinated drinks, alcohol, fatty foods, and spicy or acid-containing foods.

The strongest acid-reducing medications are proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs). PPIs are more effective in acid suppression and have a longer duration of action than normal antacids and antihistamines. The duration for taking the medication ranges from eight weeks to life depending on the severity of the acid reflux.
With NERD, there is a significantly lower response rate to PPI treatments. Interestingly, the majority of GERD cases are classified as non-erosive reflux.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease is the leading cause of cancer of the esophagus especially in the West. In Western populations GERD affects approximately ten to 20 per cent of the population. The prevalence rate is also tightly linked with age and adults over 50 years are the most commonly affected.

Other risk factors include obesity, smoking, pregnancy and hiatal hernia. This is a condition in which the opening in your diaphragm lets the upper part of the stomach move up into your chest, which lowers the pressure in the oesophageal sphincter.

10 to 15% per cent of normal people have hiatal hernia and for those with gastroesophageal reflux disease the number is higher at 70 per cent. This hernia is congenital ie occurs from birth and is detected by endoscopy or imaging studies.

By Dr Allan C. Rajula, Consultant Gastroenterologist and Senior Instructor in the Department of Medicine at Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi.

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