We all love a summer BBQ picnic or beach weekend getaway. Along with the fun, you’re probably enjoying some of your favorite foods and drinks as well. For those suffering from acid reflux or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), eating or drinking these summertime favorites may make for uncomfortable days and sleepless nights.
In the US, 20% of adults exhibit symptoms of acid reflux, heartburn or GERD on a weekly basis. Characterized by symptoms that include belching, upper abdominal burning, burning in chest, bitter taste, nausea, and sometimes regurgitation, these conditions occur when the lower esophageal sphincter muscle fails to keep stomach acid from leaking back up into the esophagus. Additionally, an individual may also have a hiatal hernia. This is a condition where part of the stomach is actually going into the chest cavity. Often, the hernia is small and doesn’t necessarily need to be repaired. However, a large hiatal hernia contributes to the GERD condition and its symptoms and should be corrected surgically. Many people go undiagnosed and untreated for months or even years, silently suffering while losing their quality of life, whereas others opt for a never-ending regiment of over-the-counter antacids or prescription medications to keep heartburn at bay.
Lifestyle causes of heartburn, acid reflux or GERD
In addition to physiological reasons, lifestyle choices can increase or decrease your chances of getting heartburn. Food often triggers acid reflux flares, with some of the more common food triggers being spicy, acidic and greasy foods, carbonated beverages, tea, and chocolate. Now doesn’t that sound like the makings of a typical Texas picnic or gathering? You can picture the table now; a full spread including hot dogs, chicken wings, chips and salsa, jalapeno poppers, citrus salads, BBQ sauce, and hamburgers. We Texans like to go big or go home when it comes to summer gatherings, but you shouldn’t have to miss out on the fun to avoid heartburn!
What are my options?
It’s not all bad news! Most patients who have chronic heartburn or GERD find medications like proton pump inhibitors (PPIs like Nexium or Prilosec) control their symptoms reasonably well. Unfortunately, these medications only mask symptoms, don’t actually stop reflux, and 30-40% percent of patients don’t get complete relief from their symptoms. For those patients who get incomplete relief with medications and lifestyle modifications, are intolerant to drugs, don’t want to be on lifetime medications, or have advanced disease, there are other options including minimally invasive surgery.
UT Health Austin is taking a different approach to treating patients with GERD at the Heartburn & Esophageal Disorders Center. Center Director Dr. Tripp Buckley says, “We are taking a multi-specialty, comprehensive approach to this disease. Our team approach creates a personalized treatment plan for each patient which often includes optimizing their medical therapy.” When medical therapy fails, there are other options including minimally invasive surgery. Dr. Buckley notes, “There are multiple new procedures for GERD that actually treat the disease at its source.” These include procedural options designed to restore the normal anatomy of the lower esophageal sphincter (the valve between the esophagus and stomach).
A surgical procedure called LINX is an option available for patients who do not respond well to daily medications or those who have concerns about the implications of lifelong pill therapy. “The LINX procedure is one of the most popular surgical options,” says Dr. Buckley. “The LINX is basically an artificial valve that stops reflux. It has been extensively studied and is very reliable, safe and effective,” says Dr. Buckley who has been involved in many of the research initiatives and one of the most experienced LINX surgeons in the world. In fact, Dr. Buckley is involved with multiple research projects at the Center. “Being on the cutting edge of research and innovation is integral to advancing the care of the GERD patient. We are also participating in an FDA trial for a new GERD therapy known as EndoStim that is like a pacemaker for the valve. It has shown great promise in trials conducted outside of the United States.”
When is time to see a specialist?
If you experience GERD symptoms more than twice a week or continue to have symptoms and/or develop new or worsening symptoms while on medication, then it may be time to see your doctor or a specialist. In the meantime, manage your symptoms, avoid or limit certain foods and beverages and take your medications. Be your best advocate and take charge of your health to make the most of your summer and your life!