You have just enjoyed the last bite of your favorite meal. Satisfied, you toss your napkin onto the table and lean back in your chair. Your tacos were a bit spicier than normal, but you should be fine. It was worth it. But on the drive home that familiar feeling starts rising in your chest. Here you go again, rubbing your chest, wishing the burning sensation away, and regretting your meal. The heartburn intensifies until you arrive home, diving into your medicine cabinet for the antacid. Even though this is the third time this week, you’re convinced there’s no real danger associated with heartburn—it’s just an inconvenience. But that logic is dangerous. Heartburn may actually be a red flag indicating serious gastric issues.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) occurs when the esophageal sphincter is weak. This muscle is found between the esophagus and the stomach. It opens allowing everything you consume to pass into your stomach and closes to prevent stomach acid from entering the esophagus. When the muscle is weak, digestive juices flow into the esophagus causing the irritation we know as heartburn. Twenty percent of Americans experience heartburn as often as twice a week. While only 10-15% have been diagnosed with GERD, heartburn may be an indication of a deeper gastric problem. If your heartburn is as frequent as twice a week, you experience unintentional weight loss or have trouble swallowing, contact a gastroenterologist. Rather than surrendering to the belief that it’s just heartburn, be certain that it’s not GERD.
Barrett’s esophagus is actually a complication of GERD. In some patients, the diagnosis of Barrett’s esophagus is linked to the longevity and severity of GERD symptoms. Barrett’s esophagus is diagnosed when the tissue lining the esophagus changes, becoming more like the tissue that lines the intestine. Middle-aged Caucasian men who have been diagnosed with GERD and experienced heartburn for many years are at the greatest risk for Barrett’s esophagus. If you’re concerned that you may have Barrett’s esophagus, you can schedule a screening with a gastro specialist. The upper endoscopy will allow your doctor to evaluate the tissue. Barrett’s esophagus, while uncommon, raises your risk for esophageal cancer, so a biopsy on tissue may be ordered.
Dysplasia and Adenocarcinoma
The presence of GERD and Barrett’s esophagus is often a red flag for esophageal cancer. Adenocarcinoma is a cancer of the esophagus that is increasing in Caucasians with GERD. The changes in tissue associated with Barrett’s esophagus are precursors to cancer, however, dysplasia may also be at play. Dysplasia occurs when the cells change shape or divide in such a way that the appearance of the tissue changes. If dysplasia is diagnosed, your doctor may recommend regular screenings and biopsies. Catching the changes in the tissue early and eliminating Barrett’s tissue can go a long way in preventing the formation of cancer. Adenocarcinoma is difficult to treat through radiation.
There Is A Solution
If you experience heartburn on a regular basis and think you may have GERD, contact Dr. Sameer Islam today. Your heartburn may be more than a simple inconvenience, it may be a red flag for more serious gastro issues. Learning how to manage GERD will be much easier than treating Barrett’s esophagus, dysplasia, or adenocarcinoma.