Q: Should I be worried about reflux?
Reflux is very common – almost everybody experiences it at some time or another. Also known as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD), symptoms include a burning sensation in the chest, nausea, regurgitation and sometimes discomfort in the upper abdomen.
Some substances are known to cause reflux because their chemical makeup relaxes the muscle between the stomach and oesophagus which normally keeps the stomach acid where it is supposed to stay.
A good way to experience reflux is to have a very big meal containing onions, a few glasses of wine or beer, and then try to have a sleep. When you lie down the acid from the stomach comes up to reach the gullet – causing reflux.
However, because reflux is such a common occurrence it can hide more serious disorders generally known as functional disorders which includes things like allergies, intolerances or a broader gut problem such as irritable bowel syndrome. The symptoms for these can include more serious abdominal aches and pains, bloating and other symptoms within the abdominal region. That is why it’s a good idea to see a medical specialist if you are experiencing reflux or indigestion.
Initially, reflux can be fairly well controlled using some simple actions such as not eating a big meal at night; cutting down on alcoholic drinks, especially red wine; no smoking; and losing some weight.
If that fails or symptoms persist, then simple medication is of value. Over the counter antacids from pharmacies such as Gaviscon or Zantac are a good step, or for more significant symptoms a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) like Nexium or Pariet might be better suited.
It is important to note these medications come with side effects and are not designed for long-term use. It has been found that long term use of PPIs in can potentially cause broken bones and osteoporosis, which is particularly relevant to women who are prone to poorer bone health.
While a GP is the best place to get advice on what is best suited to your symptoms, a pharmacist can also help you choose short-term relief.
A gut feeling it isn’t just reflux
If your GP suspects there might be something deeper at play than simple reflux, you should get the problem investigated further. A specialist gastroenterologist can refer you for an endoscopy, a day procedure during which your oesophagus is examined for problems and the surgeon potentially takes a biopsy or carries out minor repairs.
It is really important to catch any problems in their early stages. Treatment can incorporate simple lifestyle changes and medication, and can help put you back on the path to health before things deteriorate further.
Unfortunately it is a fact that reflux can be an indication of cancer. I do not wish to frighten people and say that reflux always leads to cancer, as that is incorrect, but in the last twenty years or so there has been a steady increase in the number of mostly overweight individuals who experience reflux also developing cancer of the lower oesophagus.
This is why you should not ignore reflux, and you should push your GP to get it properly investigated by a specialist if it is not responding to simple treatments.
- Today’s answer is provided by Melbourne gastrointestinal surgeon Dr Sayed Hassen, through HealthShare, a digital company dedicated to improving the health of regional Australians. Submit questions, and find more answers, at healthshare.com.au.