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August 14, 2012 > Don't Let Frequent Heartburn Lead to More Serious Health Problems

Don't Let Frequent Heartburn Lead to More Serious Health Problems

Learn what you can do to treat GERD at upcoming free seminar

Are you among the 10 percent of Americans who suffer from heartburn at least once a week? If so, you could have a condition called GERD - gastroesophageal reflux disease.

Also called acid reflux or acid indigestion, gastroesophageal reflux occurs when digestive liquids rise up into the esophagus because the muscular ring between the esophagus and the stomach doesn't close properly. If you experience heartburn occasionally, it is likely that you don't have a problem. However, if gastroesophageal reflux occurs regularly and more than twice a week, it could be GERD, and you should see a doctor about it.

"Just taking an antacid and thinking you'll be fine, isn't enough," said Mary Maish, MD, a Fremont-based thoracic surgeon who is chief of thoracic and foregut surgery for Washington Township Medical Foundation. "If you have frequent symptoms of reflux and it turns out to be GERD, you need to take charge of this issue to make sure you are getting the appropriate treatment. Your doctor can help by diagnosing the problem, prescribing treatment, and monitoring the condition on a regular basis."

GERD that is left untreated or treated improperly can eventually lead to more serious health problems, including esophageal cancer in a small number of cases, Dr. Maish added. She also recommended that people with this problem make lifestyle changes, such as stopping smoking, moderating their intake of alcohol, and adjusting their diet to lose weight and avoid fatty or spicy foods.

You can learn more about "GERD and Your Risk of Esophageal Cancer," at a free health and wellness seminar led by Dr. Maish on Tuesday, August 28 at 1 p.m. At the seminar, Dr. Maish will discuss the importance of getting regular medical check-ups for GERD and when the condition may be putting you at risk for esophageal cancer.

Sponsored by Washington Hospital, the event will be held in the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium in the Washington West building next to Washington Hospital. To reserve your spot, go online to www.whhs.com and look under Upcoming Seminars, or call (800) 963-7070.

At the seminar, Dr. Maish will explain that there are two pathways ongoing esophageal reflux can take that may eventually lead to cancer. One involves too much acid, and one involves too much bile occurring in the esophagus.

"It is important to address your heartburn to prevent it from going down one pathway or the other," she stated.

With GERD, if acid remains in the esophagus for long periods of time, this can cause extensive inflammation. According to Dr. Maish, chronic inflammation in any part of the body can potentially lead to cancer.

"With the advent of H2 blockers such as over-the-counter antacids, another problem has emerged," explained Dr. Maish.

Although antacids can relieve heartburn, the body mechanics that lead to GERD still exist, Dr. Maish pointed out. There is still improper closure of the sphincter valve between the esophagus and the stomach, and secretions from the stomach can continue to flow into the esophagus. Although this liquid is not acidic, it is still harmful, and a condition called Barrett's esophagus can result.

With Barrett's esophagus, the body reacts to the ongoing flow of nonacidic fluid from the stomach by changing the cells in the esophagus so they look like colon cells, which are more resilient to exposure to different types of fluids. Sometimes, the body doesn't have the proper shut-off mechanism to stop the cells from changing, so they can eventually become abnormal cells that begin to look like cancer.

"About 2 percent of patients who develop Barrett's esophagus will go on to develop esophageal cancer," added Dr. Maish. "This can happen at any age, and I have had several young patients - as young as 29 - who have died of esophageal cancer. Sadly, they took their heartburn medication but didn't monitor the progression of their condition."

Dr. Maish recommends that people with frequent reflux should have the diagnostic tests for GERD more regularly to make sure further change is not occurring. Diagnostic testing for GERD includes a barium swallow X-ray, endoscopy of the upper gastrointestinal tract, manometry to check the pressure in the esophagus during swallowing, and pH monitoring to measure the reflux material coming into the esophagus. Some conditions that contribute to GERD, such as a hiatal hernia, can be corrected with surgery.

"Barrett's syndrome is similar to having a mole on your skin," explained Dr. Maish. "It has the potential to lead to cancer, but it is treatable and curable, if found early enough."

Learn more

For more information about GERD, Barrett's syndrome and esophageal cancer, be sure to attend Dr. Maish's seminar on August 28 (see information above). To learn more about Mary Maish, M.D., and other physicians with Washington Township Medical Foundation, go online to www.mywtmf.com.

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