What Causes Acid Reflux?

Heartburn is a burning feeling in the chest caused by stomach acid travelling up towards the throat (acid reflux). As discussed above, reflux of acid is more injurious at night than during the day. At night, when individuals are lying down, it is easier for reflux to occur. The reason that it is easier is because gravity is not opposing the reflux, as it does in the upright position during the day. In addition, the lack of an effect of gravity allows the refluxed liquid to travel further up the esophagus and remain in the esophagus longer. These problems can be overcome partially by elevating the upper body in bed. The elevation is accomplished either by putting blocks under the bed’s feet at the head of the bed or, more conveniently, by sleeping with the upper body on a foam rubber wedge. These maneuvers raise the esophagus above the stomach and partially restore the effects of gravity. It is important that the upper body and not just the head be elevated. Elevating only the head does not raise the esophagus and fails to restore the effects of gravity.

The surgical procedure that is done to prevent reflux is technically known as fundoplication and is called reflux surgery or anti-reflux surgery During fundoplication, any hiatal hernial sac is pulled below the diaphragm and stitched there. In addition, the opening in the diaphragm through which the esophagus passes is tightened around the esophagus. Finally, the upper part of the stomach next to the opening of the esophagus into the stomach is wrapped around the lower esophagus to make an artificial lower esophageal sphincter. All of this surgery can be done through an incision in the abdomen (laparotomy) or using a technique called laparoscopy During laparoscopy, a small viewing device and surgical instruments are passed through several small puncture sites in the abdomen. This procedure avoids the need for a major abdominal incision.

Ulcers of the esophagus heal with the formation of scars (fibrosis). Over time, the scar tissue shrinks and narrows the lumen (inner cavity) of the esophagus. This scarred narrowing is called a stricture. Swallowed food may get stuck in the esophagus once the narrowing becomes severe enough (usually when this post it restricts the esophageal lumen to a diameter of one centimeter). This situation may necessitate endoscopic removal of the stuck food. Then, to prevent food from sticking, the narrowing must be stretched (widened). Moreover, to prevent a recurrence of the stricture, reflux also must be prevented.

Refluxed liquid that passes from the throat (pharynx) and into the larynx can enter the lungs (aspiration). The reflux of liquid into the lungs (called aspiration) often results in coughing and choking. Aspiration, however, also can occur without producing these symptoms. With or without these symptoms, aspiration may lead to infection of the lungs and result in pneumonia This type of pneumonia is a serious problem requiring immediate treatment. When aspiration is unaccompanied by symptoms, it can result in a slow, progressive scarring of the lungs ( pulmonary fibrosis ) that can be seen on chest X-rays. Aspiration is more likely to occur at night because that is when the processes (mechanisms) that protect against reflux are not active and the coughing reflex that protects the lungs also is not active.

A new technology allows the accurate determination of non-acid reflux. This technology uses the measurement of impedance changes within the esophagus to identify reflux of liquid, be it acid or non-acid. By combining measurement of impedance and pH it is possible to identify reflux and to tell if the reflux is acid or non-acid. It is too early to know how important non-acid reflux is in causing esophageal damage, symptoms, or complications, but there is little doubt that this new technology will be able to resolve the issues surrounding non-acid reflux.

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