Acid reflux is a common condition, particularly among the overweight and obese population. The gastro-esophageal sphincter is a muscle that is wrapped around the lower end of the esophagus. It forms a valve mechanism between the esophagus and the stomach and is normally tight enough to prevent stomach acid from flowing back into the lower esophagus.
However, in some families there is a weakness of that sphincter so that after a meal some of the food, mixed with stomach acid, flows back into the esophagus leading to an irritation of the lining of the lower esophagus (gastroesophageal reflux). What is more, when these individuals sleep they have pure acid reflux, undiluted by food. This condition is called GERD (Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease).
This in turn leads to a condition called chronic esophagitis (inflammation of the esophagus). It usually develops in the lower area of the esophagus, where the concentration of acid is the highest.
A break down of tissue in one spot in the lower esophagus can lead to an esophageal ulcer, which causes similar pain as stomach or duodenal ulcers do.
Over the years chronic esophagitis leads to scarring of the underlying connective tissue of the esophagus until an esophageal stricture (narrowing of the opening of the esophagus) develops.
This makes the esophagus even more vulnerable to chronic irritation as on top of the acid irritation the body forces food through with higher pressures and friction irritating the lining of the lower esophagus even more. After decades of that abuse the esophagus develops highly abnormal cells in its lining right there where the highest irritation has been. This premalignant condition is called Barretts esophagus (also Barrett’s syndrome, Barrett’s dysplasia or metaplasia). If this is missed, and further chronic irritation occurs, a high percentage of cases will develop cancer of the esophagus.
For this reason it is important to identify those who have acid reflux, so that treatment can be given and Barretts esophagus and cancer of the esophagus can be prevented.
Symptoms of GERD
The key symptom of acid reflux or GERD is heart burn. There may be regurgitation of acid content into the mouth, but the acid may never reach that high and only reach up to the lower third of the esophagus. With an acute esophagitis a burst blood vessel can cause profuse bleeding, which may be vomited up or swallowed.
The vomited material is mostly blood and is an alarming sign causing the physician to do an esophagoscopy, an endoscopic method to directly inspect and possibly cauterize the bleeding vessels, on an emergency basis. Swallowed blood is being digested and leads to melena (black stools).
However, most of the time the disease is not that dramatic. Apart from heart burn there might be a pain with swallowing solid foods, but not so much with swallowing drinks. When stricture develops, there might be a stinging pain right after a swallow, then there is relief as the food passes through. With an esophageal ulcer there is a sharp stinging pain in the lower part of the chest bone or higher right behind the center of the chest bone. Antacids tend to relieve the pain, but this alone is often not enough to cure it.
The history often suggests the diagnosis. There are several tests that have been developed over the years. But since the introduction of endoscopy some of them are outdated.
A barium swallow with X-ray will show the swallowing mechanism, and document, if the sphincter is incompetent by tilting the table in a reclining position, in which barium would leak back into the esophagus. In the past often there were highly sophisticated motility tests and the Bernstein acid test done, which now have been largely replaced by esophagoscopy. The advantage of this test is that the gastroenterologist can directly see the condition of he mucous membranes and do mini biopsies at the suspicious areas, where Barretts esophagus or esophagus cancer may have developed. Following the test the physician can then also start therapy for the diagnosed condition.
Treatment of acid reflux , GERD and esophagitis
Acid reflux, GERD and esophagitis are treated with a combination of the following steps:
Until recently three medications were typically used: bethanechol (brand names: Duvoid, Myotonachol and Urecholine), metoclopramide (Maxeran, Reglan, Apo-Metoclop, Nu-Metoclopramide, PMS-Metoclopramide) and cisapride (brand name: Propulsid, Prepulsid). However, cisapride has been taken off the market (see below why). All of these medications have some side-effects, which limit their use somewhat. Bethanechol‘s side effects are abdominal cramps, asthmatic attacks, diarrhea, nausea and some cardiac arrhythmias.
This means, for instance, that asthmatics cannot take this medication. Metoclopramide is more receptor specific (anti-dopamine) and therefore has less side-effects. About 10% of people complain of drowsiness and fatigue. About 5% have dizziness, headaches and bowel disturbances. As it elevates prolactin levels, women who had breast cancer cannot take it. It should also not be used in patients with epilepsy as it increases seizure activity and severity. Finally, a small number of patients come down with Parkinson’s disease like symptoms and it can produce also a condition called “tardive dyskinesia”, when used for a long time. Tardive dyskinesia affects face muscles and muscles of the mouth and tongue. It often disfigures the face and unfortunately is mostly irreversible. This is the reason why this type of medication should only be used on a short-term basis.Finally, cisapride was a gastrokinetic agent (a serotonin receptor agonist) and until recently was quite popular. However, serious cardiac arrhythmias developed under certain circumstances. Also, permanent bone marrow damage occurred in a small percentage of patients (agranulocytosis). Because of these serious side-effects cisapride has been banned in 2001 in the US and Canada.The reason for this was that the drug is eliminated from the system via a liver enzyme system (P450 cytochrome pathway) that many other drugs also utilize for elimination. Certain antibiotics (erythromycin and clarithromycin), antifungals (fluconazole, ketoconazole), protease inhibitors (ritonavir, indinavir) and some antidepressants (nefazodone) were drugs that interacted in this elimination system in the liver and led to toxic levels of cisapride. I am mentioning this here as an example to show how careful the patient and doctor have to be with new medications as it often takes several years of “post marketing research” before all of the toxic interactions are known. Ask your physician before you take any medication and discuss your concerns about its safety. Also, tell the doctor about herbs or other supplements that you may be taking, as they may interact with medications as well.
If symptoms are not quite controlled with the above measures, the docotr likely will try ranitidine (brand name Zantac), which often alleviates the symptoms. But if it does not, it may be time to use the strongest acid suppressing medication, the proton pump inhibitors (also known as hydrogen-potassium ATPase inhibitors).
Two such powerful acid stoppers are: omeprazole (brand names:Prilosec) and lansoprazole (brand name: Prevacid ). Usual dosage for omeprazole is 20mg once daily, and for lansoprazole it is 30 mg once daily. The action on the acid producing cells is so powerful that within a few days the symptoms of esophagitis or esophageal ulcer are healed. Side effects are not too common and much more benign than described for the medications above. A few percentages of diarrhea, headaches and abdominal pain are listed. The proton pump inhibitors are metabolized by the liver via the cytochrome P450 enzyme system. This limits the applicability somewhat, but with proper care and avoidance of interfering other medications the proton pump inhibitors are a very powerful tool in treating ulcers and acid reflux.
Your doctor will talk to you about your particular tests and what therapy is best for your situation. There is a wide variety of findings and severity of conditions to which the therapy will be tailored.
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