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By Susan Male-Smith
Here's an all-too-familiar scenario: You wake up in the middle of the night with a burning pain beneath your breastbone -- that unremitting, gnawing, almost crushing agony that makes you think it's a heart attack. But by now you know it's heartburn because it subsides when you get up, walk around and take an antacid.
Do these excruciating episodes mean you have gastroesophageal reflux disease, otherwise known by that catchy acronym GERD?
What is GERD?
GERD occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus as a result of a leaky valve where the stomach and esophagus meet. This can result in an array of symptoms, including:
worsening asthma symptoms
While nearly everyone gets an occasional bout of run-of-the-mill heartburn, the National Institutes of Health say it's GERD when heartburn is persistent and occurs more than twice a week. In addition, a global conference in 2006 defined GERD more vaguely as acid reflux that causes "troublesome symptoms or complications." In other words, if you find your heartburn "troublesome," your doctor may say you have GERD. It's also worth noting that while the most common symptom of GERD is heartburn, it's also possible to have GERD without heartburn.
When to See a Doctor
"If you have occasional heartburn with no other symptoms and it disappears with over-the-counter remedies, then you probably don't need to see a doctor," says Dr. Stuart J. Spechler, a gastroenterologist who teaches at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and serves as chief of gastroenterology at Dallas VA Medical Center.
But if heartburn is persistent or you have any other bothersome symptoms, it's a good idea to get checked out by your doctor. Left untreated, GERD can lead to complications, including inflammation of the esophagus, and in rare cases, Barrett's esophagus, a precursor to esophageal cancer. And it's especially important to see your doctor if symptoms are accompanied by weight loss or bloody stools. It's not likely, but these could signal something life-threatening, like cancer. Finally, if it turns out you have GERD, your doctor can recommend lifestyle changes and medications to help you feel better -- which may be the best reason of all to make that call.
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Susan Male-SmithSusan Male-Smithis a registered dietitian and freelance nutrition and health writer. She has written for Family Circle, Redbook, Child and American Health, and she is a former editor of theEnvironmental Nutritionnewsletter. She has also co-written the book Foods for Better Health.