GERD Home > What Is GERD?

GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) usually occurs when there is a problem with the sphincter between the esophagus and the stomach. When this happens, acidic stomach juices can flow back up into the esophagus more frequently than normal, leading to symptoms like chest pain. Over time, this condition can lead to bleeding, the formation of ulcers, or scarring and narrowing of the esophagus.

An Introduction to GERD

Heartburn is considered by many people to be a normal part of life. However, it may also be a symptom of more serious health problems.
If you have heartburn two or more times a week, or can't find relief with over-the-counter medications, you may have a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease. This condition is also known as acid reflux disease or GERD.
If you or your doctor thinks that you may have GERD, you probably have a lot of questions. This article will provide some basic facts about GERD and the digestive system. For example, this article explains:
  • What your stomach does with the food you eat
  • The factors that can increase your risk of developing GERD or make your symptoms worse
  • What GERD is and how it's diagnosed
  • How the condition is treated.

Understanding the Normal Digestive Process

To better understand GERD, it's important to know what happens during the normal digestive process.
As you chew your food and swallow, food particles travel from your mouth to the esophagus. The esophagus, a muscular tube that contracts and relaxes in a wave-like motion, helps move food and liquids down toward your stomach. This process is called peristalsis.
Just before the esophagus gets to the stomach, it travels through your diaphragm. The diaphragm is a broad muscle that separates your stomach from your chest cavity. The opening in the diaphragm where the esophagus travels through is called the hiatus.
The esophagus then joins the stomach at the lower esophageal sphincter, also called the LES. This sphincter acts as a doorway between the esophagus and the stomach. After you swallow, it opens to let food into the stomach. Then the sphincter closes to keep food and stomach juices from going back up into the esophagus.
Inside your stomach, strong acids and enzymes make up the juices that break down your food. Your stomach has special mechanisms that help protect it from these strong juices.
Your esophagus doesn't have these same defenses, so it's important for the LES to close off the stomach opening to keep the juices in the stomach. Sometimes, the acidic contents of the stomach go back up, or reflux, into the esophagus. Some reflux is normal, and much of the time, this never causes any problems. The esophagus also has some ways to protect itself -- for example, the saliva in your esophagus can help neutralize stomach acid, and gravity and peristalsis help to wash the saliva and stomach juices back down into the stomach.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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