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Acid reflux is a common condition that features a burning pain, known as heartburn, in the lower chest area. It happens when stomach acid flows back up into the food pipe.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is diagnosed when acid reflux occurs more than twice a week.
Exact figures vary, but diseases resulting from acid reflux are the most common gut complaint seen by hospital departments in the United States.
The American College of Gastroenterology says that over 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month, and at least 15 million as often as daily.
GERD is most common in Western countries, affecting an estimated 20 to 30 percent of the population.
Chronic heartburn can lead to serious complications.
Fast facts on acid reflux
Here are some key points about acid reflux. More detail is in the main article.
Acid reflux is also known as heartburn, acid indigestion, or pyrosis.
It happens when some of the acidic stomach contents go back up into the esophagus.
Acid reflux creates a burning pain in the lower chest area, often after eating.
Lifestyle risk factors include obesity and smoking.
Drug treatments are the most common therapy and are available on prescription and over the counter (OTC).
Acid reflux is when some of the acid content of the stomach flows up into the esophagus, into the gullet, which moves food down from the mouth. Despite the name, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart.
The stomach contains hydrochloric acid, a strong acid that helps break down food and protect against pathogens such as bacteria.
The lining of the stomach is specially adapted to protect it from the powerful acid, but the esophagus is not protected.
A ring of muscle, the gastroesophageal sphincter, normally acts as a valve that lets food into the stomach but not back up into the esophagus. When this valve fails, and stomach contents are regurgitated into the esophagus, the symptoms of acid reflux are felt, such as heartburn.
GERD affects people of all ages, sometimes for unknown reasons. Often, it is due to a lifestyle factor, but it can also be due to causes that cannot always be prevented.
One cause that is not preventable is a hiatal (or hiatus) hernia. A hole in the diaphragm allows the upper part of the stomach to enter the chest cavity, sometimes leading to GERD.
Other risk factors are more easily controlled:
smoking (active or passive)
low levels of physical exercise
medications, including drugs for asthma, calcium-channel blockers, antihistamines, painkillers, sedatives, and antidepressants
Pregnancy can also cause acid reflux due to extra pressure being placed on the internal organs.
(Image: Representation only)