You probably recall a time after a big meal when your esophagus felt on fire. The liquid from the stomach that refluxes into the esophagus damages the cells lining the esophagus. The body responds in the way that it usually responds to damage, which is with inflammation (esophagitis). The purpose of inflammation is to neutralize the damaging see this page agent and begin the process of healing. If the damage goes deeply into the esophagus, an ulcer forms. An ulcer is simply a break in the lining of the esophagus that occurs in an area of inflammation. Ulcers and the additional inflammation they provoke may erode into the esophageal blood vessels and give rise to bleeding into the esophagus.
Esophageal motility testing determines how well the muscles of the esophagus are working. For motility testing, a thin tube (catheter) is passed through a nostril, down the back of the throat, and into the esophagus. On the part of the catheter that is inside the esophagus are sensors that sense pressure. A pressure is generated within the esophagus that is detected by the sensors on the catheter when the muscle of the esophagus contracts. The end of the catheter that protrudes from the nostril is attached to a recorder that records the pressure. During the test, the pressure at rest and the relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter are evaluated. The patient then swallows sips of water to evaluate the contractions of the esophagus.
Before the introduction of endoscopy, an X-ray of the esophagus (called an esophagram) was the only means of diagnosing GERD. Patients swallowed barium (contrast material), and X-rays of the barium-filled esophagus were then taken. The problem with the esophagram was that it was an insensitive test for diagnosing GERD. That is, it failed to find signs of GERD in many patients who had GERD because the patients had little or no damage to the lining of the esophagus. The X-rays were able to show only the infrequent complications of GERD, for example, ulcers and strictures. X-rays have been abandoned as a means of diagnosing GERD, although they still can be useful along with endoscopy in the evaluation of complications.
Some physicians – primarily surgeons – recommend that all patients with Barrett’s esophagus should have surgery. This recommendation is based on the belief that surgery is more effective than endoscopic surveillance or ablation of the abnormal tissue followed by treatment with acid-suppressing drugs in preventing both the reflux and the cancerous changes in the esophagus. There are no studies, however, demonstrating the superiority of surgery over drugs or ablation for the treatment of GERD and its complications. Moreover, the effectiveness of drug treatment can be monitored with 24 hour pH testing.
The second type of drug developed specifically for acid-related diseases, such as GERD, was a proton pump inhibitor (PPI), specifically, omeprazole ( Prilosec ). A PPI blocks the secretion of acid into the stomach by the acid-secreting cells. The advantage of a PPI over an H2 antagonist is that the PPI shuts off acid production more completely and for a longer period of time. Not only is the PPI good for treating the symptom of heartburn, but it also is good for protecting the esophagus from acid so that esophageal inflammation can heal.