Tuesday, May 22
The symptoms of uncomplicated GERD are primarily heartburn, regurgitation, and nausea. Other symptoms occur when there are complications of GERD and will be discussed with the complications.
When acid refluxes back into the esophagus in patients with GERD, nerve fibers in the esophagus are stimulated. This nerve stimulation results most commonly in heartburn, the pain that is characteristic of GERD. Heartburn usually is described as a burning pain in the middle of the chest. It may start high in the abdomen or may extend up into the neck. In some patients, however, the pain may be sharp or pressure-like, rather than burning. Such pain can mimic heart pain (angina). In other patients, the pain may extend to the back. Since acid reflux is more common after meals, heartburn is more common after meals. Heartburn is also more common when individuals lie down because without the effects of gravity, reflux occurs more easily, and acid is returned to the stomach more slowly.
Episodes of heartburn may occur infrequently or frequently, but episodes tend to happen periodically. This means that the episodes are more frequent or severe for a period of several weeks or months, and then they become less frequent or severe or even absent for several weeks or months. Nevertheless, heartburn is a life-long problem, and it almost always returns.
Regurgitation is the appearance of refluxed liquid in the mouth. In GERD, usually only small quantities of liquid reach the esophagus, and the liquid remains in the lower esophagus. Occasionally, and particularly in some patients, larger quantities of liquid, sometimes containing food, are refluxed and reach the upper esophagus.
At the upper end of the esophagus is the upper esophageal sphincter (UES). The UES is a circular ring of muscle that is very similar in its actions to the LES. That is, the UES prevents esophageal contents from backing up into the throat. When small amounts of refluxed liquid and/or foods breach (get through) the UES and enter the throat, there may be an acid taste in the mouth. If larger quantities breach the UES, patients may suddenly find their mouths filled with the liquid or food. What's more, frequent or prolonged regurgitation can lead to acid-induced erosions of the teeth.
Nausea is uncommon in GERD. In some patients, however, it may be frequent or severe and may result in vomiting. In fact, in patients with unexplained nausea and/or vomiting, GERD is one of the first conditions suspected. It is not clear why some patients with GERD develop mainly heartburn and others develop mainly nausea.