Heartburn is a burning feeling in the chest caused by stomach acid travelling up towards the throat (acid reflux). Despite the development of potent medications for the treatment of GERD, antacids remain a mainstay of treatment. Antacids neutralize the acid in the stomach so that there is no acid to reflux. The problem with antacids is that their action is brief. They are emptied from the empty stomach quickly, in less than an hour, and the acid then re-accumulates. The best way to take antacids, therefore, is approximately one hour after meals, which is just before the symptoms of reflux begin after a meal. Since the food from meals slows the emptying from the stomach, an antacid taken after a meal stays in the stomach longer and is effective longer. For the same reason, a second dose of antacids approximately two hours after a meal takes advantage of the continuing post-meal slower emptying of the stomach and replenishes the acid-neutralizing capacity within the stomach.
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 resources 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.
The amount of time that the esophagus contains acid is determined by a test called a 24-hour esophageal pH test (pH is a mathematical way of expressing the amount of acidity.) For this test, a small tube (catheter) is passed through the nose and positioned in the esophagus. On the tip of the catheter is a sensor that senses acid. The other end of the catheter exits from the nose, wraps back over the ear, and travels down to the waist, where it is attached to a recorder. Each time acid refluxes back into the esophagus from the stomach, it stimulates the sensor and the recorder records the episode of reflux. After a 20 to 24 hour period of time, the catheter is removed and the record of reflux from the recorder is analyzed.
GERD is a chronic condition. Once it begins, it usually is life-long. If there is injury to the lining of the esophagus (esophagitis), this also is a chronic condition. Moreover, after the esophagus has healed with treatment and treatment is stopped, the injury will return in most patients within a few months. Once treatment for GERD is begun it will need to be continued indefinitely although. However, some patients with intermittent symptoms and no esophagitis can be treated only during symptomatic periods.
When acid refluxes back into the esophagus in patients with GERD, nerve fibers in the esophagus are stimulated. This nerve stimulation results most commonly in heartburn, the pain that is characteristic of GERD. Heartburn usually is described as a burning pain in the middle of the chest. It may start high in the abdomen or may extend up into the neck. In some patients, however, the pain may be sharp or pressure-like, rather than burning. Such pain can mimic heart pain ( angina ). In other patients, the pain may extend to the back.