Frequent heartburn is not a normal part of life.
Almost everyone gets heartburn every once in a while. How do you know if your heartburn is actually GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease? The most important thing is to see your doctor if you are having heartburn often. They can help diagnose GERD and help you find a treatment plan to prevent acid reflux complications.
How is heartburn different from GERD?
GERD is when people have heartburn (or other acid reflux symptoms) at least two to three times a week. If you get acid reflux enough, it can cause bothersome symptoms, injury to the esophagus, or even increase your risk of developing esophageal cancer.
How do doctors diagnose GERD?
To diagnose GERD, doctors will look for a "constellation" of symptoms — that is, a group of symptoms that tend to occur together.
Questions your doctor may ask
Your doctor may ask you:
- How frequently you experience acid reflux symptoms
- Whether you experience heartburn symptoms at night
- If you’ve noticed specific food or eating habits that trigger your heartburn symptoms
- How frequently you eat, the size of your meals, and what you eat
- Your weight and whether it has fluctuated recently
- What medications you may be taking and if you have any other medical conditions
Tests your doctor may use
Along with asking you about your symptoms and lifestyle habits, doctors may also perform certain procedures to diagnose GERD, such as:
- An endoscopy, which uses a tiny camera to look inside the esophagus
- A pH-monitoring study, which uses a thin tube inside the nose to track acid reflux in the esophagus
- A UGI series, which is an X-ray of the upper gastrointestinal tract
What happens if you have GERD?
If you’re diagnosed with GERD, your doctor may suggest certain lifestyle changes, like avoiding certain foods, having smaller, more frequent meals, or losing weight if you need to. There may also be medications that can help manage heartburn symptoms. However, lifestyle and diet changes are generally the first-line approach to treating GERD.
Dr. Raj is a gastroenterologist and associate professor of medicine at NYU School of Medicine, and an attending physician at NYU Langone Medical Center.
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If you are experiencing frequent symptoms,
I would say twice a week or more or
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you are acquiring frequent
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talk to your doctor about the acid reflux.
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Heartburn is one of the most
common symptoms of acid reflux.
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And it refers to a burning sensation that
occurs in the chest that is usually due
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to acid coming up from the stomach into
the esophagus, causing irritation.
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Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD,
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is when you frequently have acid coming
up from the stomach into your esophagus.
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It's important to have your
acid reflux evaluated,
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because in some cases, acid reflux
can go on to more serious conditions,
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stricturing, or narrowing of
the esophagus or even esophageal cancer.
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In terms of diagnosing GERD, where there's
a very, kind of, typical constellation of
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symptoms that we ask for, and
different lifestyle factors and
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how long they've been experiencing
symptoms, how frequently.
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Do they ever wake them up at night?
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I also ask them about
their diet in general.
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If they've noticed
specific food triggers or
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if the symptoms do occur mostly after
they eat, how frequently they're eating,
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the size of their meals,
what they're eating specifically.
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Do they lay down and go to sleep very soon
after eating their last meal of the day?
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We ask about their weight, and
we measure their weight as well, or
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if there's been sudden
weight gain recently,
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any other medications they may be taking,
other medical problems.
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But to truly diagnose it,
we often do an endoscopy,
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a test where we actually put
a scope down someone's throat and
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look inside their esophagus to see if
there are any signs of acid inflammation.
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An endoscopy is a great test, because not
only does it help assess whether there is
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acid inflammation in the esophagus, but
it's very helpful to rule out any other
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causes of these potential symptoms, things
like an ulcer or a hernia, for example.
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There are other ways to diagnose it.
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There's actually something called a pH
monitor where you can actually measure
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the amount of acid that's being produced.
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Sometimes an upper GI series is ordered.
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That's an x-ray test that looks
at the upper GI tract, and
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that's also helpful for
diagnosing reflux and hernias.
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Some of the symptoms,
things like a sore throat or
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a change in your voice, could have
nothing to do with the acid reflux.
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They could be a sign of
another condition altogether.
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And you don't want that to be missed.
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You don't wanna just sort of
accept this as part of your life.
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You wanna make sure that you're getting
the correct diagnosis, evaluation, and
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the correct treatment.
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Patient education: Acid reflux (gastroesophageal reflux disease) in adults (Beyond the Basics). Waltham, MD. UpToDate, 2020. (Accessed on April 21, 2021 at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/acid-reflux-gastroesophageal-reflux-disease-in-adults-beyond-the-basics)Upper Gastrointestinal Series. Baltimore, MD. John Hopkins Medicine. (Accessed on April 21, 2021 at https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/test_procedures/gastroenterology/upper_gastrointestinal_series_92,P07701)