In people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and heartburn, the valve-like muscle between the esophagus and the stomach, called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), is not working correctly. The malfunctioning LES allows stomach acid and other stomach contents to leak back into the esophagus. The presence of stomach acid or other regurgitated stomach contents in the esophagus can irritate it. Occasional heartburn is usually not serious and causes less damage than GERD, which is often chronic. In people with GERD, the ongoing irritation in the esophagus can lead to inflammation, bleeding, ulcers, a buildup of scar tissue, and other complications. In some people with GERD, the chronic irritation causes the cells in the lining of the esophagus to change, increasing the risk of esophageal cancer.
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Common symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease are heartburn and/or acid regurgitation. Heartburn is a burning sensation felt behind the breastbone that occurs when stomach contents irritate the normal lining of the esophagus. Acid regurgitation is the sensation of stomach fluid coming up through the chest, which may reach the mouth. Less common symptoms that may also be associated with gastroesophageal reflux include unexplained chest pain, wheezing, sore throat and cough, among others. You should see your doctor immediately if you have symptoms such as unexplained weight loss, trouble swallowing, or internal bleeding in addition to heartburn and/or acid regurgitation. Symptoms that persist after you have made simple lifestyle changes also warrant a visit to your doctor. In addition, if you use over-the-counter medications regularly to reduce symptoms such as heartburn or acid regurgitation, you should consult a physician to determine the best course of treatment for you.
James Rosser, MD, Surgery, answeredHeartburn occurs when the faulty valve (lower esophageal sphincter) responsible for keeping acid containing food in the stomach fails to do its job, and acid-laden contents are allowed to reflux into the esophagus (food tube). If heartburn persists, it can lead to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).