If you ever experience a burning feeling in your chest, you may be suffering from acid reflux. This common condition is not only uncomfortable but can cause damage to your esophagus, the tube that connects your throat to your stomach. If you regularly have acid reflux, it's a good idea to see your primary care doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

What Is Acid Reflux?

At the top of your stomach is a ring of muscle known as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). This muscle relaxes to allow food to enter the stomach, and it should close back up again immediately afterward. In people who have acid reflux disease, the LES doesn’t close completely, which means that stomach acid can move up into the esophagus, creating a burning feeling sometimes called heartburn.

Here are some terms that can help you understand acid reflux:

  • Esophagus: The tube that runs from the throat to the stomach.
  • LES: The ring of muscle that keeps acid inside the stomach.
  • Heartburn: A burning feeling in the chest.

Stages and Types of Acid Reflux

Most people experience acid reflux at some point during their lives. It is sometimes called acid regurgitation or gastroesophageal reflux (GER).

If you regularly have acid reflux, you may have acid reflux disease, sometimes called GERD, which is a long-lasting form of acid reflux. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, you may have GERD if you have reflux more than twice a week for several weeks.

Acid reflux that continues over the long term without treatment can lead to esophagitis, a condition in which the esophagus becomes inflamed. Having esophagitis for many years can increase the risk of esophageal cancer.

Symptoms and Causes

The most common symptom of acid reflux is heartburn, which is a burning pain in the middle of your chest. Here are some other common symptoms:

  • Bad breath
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Pain when swallowing or finding it difficult to swallow

Acid reflux occurs when the LES is too weak to fully close, or when it relaxes at the wrong time, which has several causes:

  • Pressure on your abdomen as a result of pregnancy or obesity
  • A hiatal hernia, in which part of your stomach moves through your diaphragm into your chest
  • Medications that affect the muscle tone in the LES

Prevention and Risks

Your risk of acid reflux may be higher if you are:

  • Overweight or obese
  • Pregnant
  • A smoker
  • Taking some medications, such as asthma medications, calcium channel blockers for high blood pressure, and antihistamines, which treat allergy symptoms

You might be able to reduce your risk of developing acid reflux by keeping your weight in a healthy range. If you are taking medication that increases your risk of acid reflux and you are worried about developing GERD, talk to your doctor. Don’t stop taking medication without your doctor’s advice.

Diagnosis and Tests

When you see a doctor about acid reflux, the doctor will ask about your symptoms. They will also review your medical history.

The doctor may recommend lifestyle changes to reduce how often you get acid reflux. If you still have symptoms after making these changes, your doctor may decide to test you for GERD using one or more of the following tests:

  • Upper endoscopy: This test involves feeding a tiny camera down your throat and into your stomach. Doctors can use the camera to look for signs of GERD, such as scarring in the esophagus.
  • X-ray: Doctors can use x-ray images to see whether you have a hiatal hernia or esophageal stricture (a narrowing of the esophagus).

Treatment, Procedures, and Medication

Some people can control acid reflux simply by making careful choices about what they eat and drink. Others require medical treatment to control the condition.

Here are some types of medicine that your doctor might prescribe for acid reflux:

  • Antacids: These neutralize stomach acid and can help to reduce the burning feeling in your chest.
  • H2 blockers: These reduce the amount of acid your stomach makes.
  • Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs): These lower the amount of acid your stomach makes and often work better than H2 blockers. However, PPIs can have side effects, such as an increased risk of fractures, if you take them for many years.
  • Prokinetics: These cause your stomach to empty more quickly, which can reduce pressure on your LES.

If medicines and lifestyle changes don’t help your acid reflux, you may need to consider surgery. A surgeon can tighten the LES to prevent acid spilling out of the stomach.

Healthy Lifestyle Tips

Lifestyle changes can make a huge difference to acid reflux for some people. Try some of the following changes to see if they can relieve your symptoms:

  • Lose weight if you are overweight.
  • Wear loose clothing without tight waistbands.
  • Avoid lying down after meals.
  • If you have heartburn at night, elevate the head of your bed by putting blocks under the bedposts.
  • Quit smoking and avoid inhaling secondhand smoke.

Many people get acid reflux after eating a big meal. Try to eat smaller meals, even if this means eating more often. Also, try to avoid eating just before you go to bed. Limit how often you eat the following trigger foods.

  • High-fat foods: Greasy, fried, or fatty foods, such as full-fat dairy products, can relax the LES and slow down your digestion, which means food spends more time in your stomach.
  • Acidic foods: Citrus fruits, tomatoes, and soda increase the acidity of your stomach contents.
  • Garlic, onions, and spicy foods: These are acid reflux triggers for many people.
  • Mint: This popular flavoring relaxes the LES, allowing acid to escape.

Replace these foods with vegetables, lean meat, and whole grains to create a healthy diet plan that helps to manage your acid reflux.

What Type of Doctors to See

When you have acid reflux, you can book an appointment with your primary care doctor. Be sure to tell the doctor how long you have had acid reflux symptoms. If you have identified any trigger foods, it might be helpful to note them down and bring the list to your appointment.

If your primary care doctor can’t help you manage your acid reflux with medication and lifestyle changes, you may need to see a gastroenterologist. This kind of doctor can carry out tests to find out what is causing your acid reflux and recommend treatment.

Finally, you might need to see a surgeon if you have a hiatal hernia or other structural problem that is causing your acid reflux.

Conclusion

Acid reflux is something that most people experience at some point in their lives, often after eating a very large or rich meal. If you have acid reflux regularly, it is a good idea to see a doctor for tests, medications, and advice on managing the condition. With the right combination of medication and diet and lifestyle changes, many people can rid themselves of the pain of acid reflux and start enjoying food again.

If you need help finding a doctor, try searching Caredash's database for one near you.