What is Acid Reflux Disease?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease, acid reflux, GERD, heartburn and acid indigestion, are all terms used to describe an unpleasant and often painful condition where stomach acid flows backward or refluxes into the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach.

View of normal esophagus through and endoscopeEndoscope view of esophagitis due to reflux disease

View of Barrett

The tube, called the esophagus has a muscular ring around it where it joins to the stomach. This ring, called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), acts as a one way valve that opens to allow food to enter the stomach and then closes to prevent the stomach contents to moving backward from the stomach to the esophagus.

When reflux occurs, the LES opens when it should be closed.  This may occur because of anatomic abnormalities such as hiatal hernia, impaired nerve or muscle function as well as some foods or medications. GERD is more common in overweight people, pregnant women, and people over 40.

While the stomach is able to handle digestive acids, the lining of the esophagus cannot.  Acid that refluxes into the esophagus causes the pain of heartburn and can damage the esophageal lining causing chronic inflammation and leading to serious damage and increased risk of esophageal cancer.

Next: Causes of Reflux Disease »