You know that feeling of discomfort in your chest or upper abdomen, maybe mixed with some nausea or mild burning. Is it just heartburn or something more serious? Should you be concerned? And how can you avoid that burning feeling?

Occasional reflux – also known as heartburn, acid reflux or acid indigestion – is very common. Typically, when you swallow, a muscular valve around the bottom of your esophagus (called the lower esophageal sphincter) relaxes, allowing food or liquid to enter your stomach. Sometimes, this valve relaxes abnormally or weakens, which can allow stomach bile or acid to flow upwards into the esophagus, causing heartburn. When this happens more than twice a week for a few weeks, the condition is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, and can cause many other health problems.

infographic-gerd

When should I see a doctor?

Over time, frequent irritation of the esophagus can cause many complications, including ulcers, esophagitis and esophageal strictures, which can lead to trouble swallowing. Breathing stomach acid into your lungs can also trigger respiratory problems, including asthma, dry cough, wheezing, hoarseness and even pneumonia. GERD often strikes at night, which can trigger sleep apnea. The frequent flow of acid can even decay your teeth.

With all this potential for long-term trouble, you should see your doctor if you’re suffering from heartburn more than a couple times a week. Keep a food diary to see if any specific foods seem to trigger your symptoms, and track your stress levels to see if there might be a correlation between high stress and digestive distress.

Your physician may recommend specific lifestyle changes or prescribe medications. If these changes or medications don’t help, you may be referred to a gastroenterologist for more extensive testing and treatment. Researchers at the USC Digestive Health Center developed the LINX device, a ring of tiny titanium beads laparoscopically placed around the lower end of the esophagus, to treat severe GERD. Our surgeons perform more LINX procedures than any other program in the nation.

How can I prevent heartburn or GERD?

You can best prevent GERD by losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight. Extra weight compresses your abdomen and can push the stomach up causing acid to backflow. (This is why many women experience GERD during pregnancy.)

Learning your personal trigger foods and beverages can help, too. Some of the most common are spicy or fatty foods, tomatoes, citrus, alcohol, onions, caffeine or chocolate. Avoid your personal triggers, eat smaller meals and don’t lie down for three hours after eating to give food time to digest.

The USC Digestive Health Center

As a leader in battling digestive diseases like GERD, the USC Digestive Health Center is at the forefront of developing new treatments. If you’re suffering from GERD or chronic heartburn, request an appointment with a primary care physician or a gastroenterologist at (800) USC-CARE.