Treating Severe, Chronic Heartburn

Who should consider surgery or, perhaps, an endoscopic treatment trial for GERD? (As mentioned previously, the effectiveness of the recently developed endoscopic treatments remains to be determined.) Patients should consider surgery if they have regurgitation that cannot be controlled with drugs. This recommendation is particularly important if the regurgitation results in infections in the lungs or occurs at night when aspiration into the lungs is more likely. Patients also should consider surgery if they require large doses of PPI or multiple drugs to control their reflux. It is debated whether or not a desire to be free of the need to take life-long drugs to prevent symptoms of GERD is by itself a satisfactory reason for having surgery.

Barrett’s esophagus can be recognized visually at the time of an endoscopy and confirmed by microscopic examination of the lining cells. Then, patients with Barrett’s esophagus can undergo periodic surveillance endoscopies with biopsies although there is not agreement as to which patients require surveillance. The purpose of surveillance is to detect progression from pre- cancer to more cancerous changes so that cancer -preventing treatment can be started. It also is believed that patients with Barrett’s esophagus should receive maximum treatment for GERD to prevent further damage to the esophagus. Procedures are being studied that remove the abnormal lining cells. Several endoscopic, non-surgical techniques can be used to remove the cells. These techniques are attractive because they do not require surgery; however, there are associated with complications, and the long-term effectiveness of the treatments has not yet been determined. Surgical removal of the esophagus is always an option.

The usual way that GERD is by its characteristic symptom, heartburn. Heartburn is most frequently described as a sub-sternal (under the middle of the chest) burning that occurs after meals and often worsens when lying down. To confirm the diagnosis, physicians often treat patients with medications to suppress the production of acid by the stomach. If the heartburn then is diminished to a large extent, the diagnosis of GERD is considered confirmed. This approach of making a diagnosis on the basis of a response of the symptoms to treatment is commonly called a therapeutic trial.

If symptoms of GERD do not respond to maximum doses of PPI, there are two options for management. The first is to perform 24-hour pH testing to determine whether the PPI is ineffective or if a disease other than GERD is likely to be present. If the PPI is ineffective, a higher dose of PPI may be tried. The second option is to go ahead without 24 hour pH right here testing and to increase the dose of PPI. Another alternative is to add another drug to the PPI that works in a way that is different from the PPI, for example, a pro-motility drug or a foam barrier. If necessary, all three types of drugs can be used. If there is not a satisfactory response to this maximal treatment, 24 hour pH testing should be done.

Surgery is very effective at relieving symptoms and treating the complications of GERD. Approximately 80% of patients will have good or excellent relief of their symptoms for at least 5 to 10 years. Nevertheless, many patients who have had surgery will continue to take drugs for reflux. It is not clear whether they take the drugs because they continue to have reflux and symptoms of reflux or if they take them for symptoms that are being caused by problems other than GERD. The most common complication of fundoplication is swallowed food that sticks at the artificial sphincter. Fortunately, the sticking usually is temporary. If it is not transient, endoscopic treatment to stretch (dilate) the artificial sphincter usually will relieve the problem. Only occasionally is it necessary to re-operate to revise the prior surgery.

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