Heartburn Hurts! GERD Gotcha?

My Experience

Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease the doctor said, almost ten years ago-GERD for short. I had never heard of it before. He said it was the reason for my “episodes” as I called them. It started in the middle of the night. I would wake up all of a sudden with a feeling of intense suffocation, no pain, just feeling like I was being asphyxiated. I would jump out of bed and stagger outside struggling mightily to suck in the cool night air. My extremities were so weak I could hardly walk. I trembled uncontrollably with the effort. After a bit, I would return to the house feeling extremely weak and tired but afraid to go back to bed. I would sit up in the recliner and sleep fitfully until daybreak. I had long since passed the heartburn stage. While eating and drinking massive amounts of antacids, I still fought with heartburn throughout my thirties.

More than one doctor diagnosed the breathing problem as asthma and gave me a number of different inhalers which had very little to no effect.

Finally, an astute family practitioner correctly diagnosed the problem and sent me to a Gastroenterologist, a specialist in the human digestive tract. He found no serious problems needing surgery at the time, but put me on a special diet and gave me some very expensive pills to take with some lifestyle changes to make. For a time these measures helped but then the symptoms became more acute. I began to have the asthma like attacks everywhere, in the middle of the day, standing upright, talking to customers, sitting, crawling under houses and climbing on ladders (I’m a plumber), sleeping, and perhaps most alarming of all, while driving.

Not knowing precisely what was wrong, I sought help at the University of Washington Medical Center. Finally, a team of Gastroenterologists found the lower esophageal sphincter muscle had failed completely. It stayed wide open all the time allowing stomach acid and enzymes to rise through the esophagus and attack the lungs through the bronchial tubes. That’s when my lungs would react by attempting to close down. My breathing would become labored and difficult, like asthma. After a surgical procedure called Nissan Laparoscopic Fundoplication, my symptoms became much less severe and I was able to return to work. I still experience heart burn and some other problems but, with a number of lifestyle changes, I can cope with them without the aid of expensive medications.

The Gerd Information Resource Center (http://www.gerd.com) states:

� According to a Gallup survey, approximately 44% of adult Americans suffer from heartburn at least once a month.

� 7% of the American population suffers heartburn at least once daily.

� Based on endoscopic and histological examinations, approximately 2% of the population has GERD.

What can be done to prevent the onset of GERD?

As far as is known at present, nothing can be done to prevent the disease itself, but once symptoms begin to appear some things can be done to prevent symptoms from becoming worse.

� Avoid foods and activities that worsen symptoms.

� Maintain a healthy weight.

� Recognize that people who experience GERD like symptoms will be able to tolerate different foods. Some may not be able to tolerate tomatoes or tomato based products. Some may tolerate tomatoes very well but not be able to tolerate ketchup at all. Some may be able to eat onions but not tomatoes or any tomato based product.

What can happen if GERD goes untreated?

� Certainly, left untreated, symptoms will grow worse, impacting the way one lives and works.

âÂ?¢ Damage can occur to internal organs without treatment. Stomach acid and enzymes can eat holes in the esophagus, even cause a pre cancerous condition called Barrett’s Esophagus.

� A Gastroenterologist with the University of Washington Medical Center says GERD can potentially cause or contribute to asthma or asthma like bronchial problems. There is currently some discussion as to whether GERD actually causes asthma, or asthma contributes to GERD.

Is GERD hereditary?

� At present there is no indication that GERD is hereditary.

What medical treatments are available?

� New treatments are always on the horizon, it seems. It is best to be diagnosed by a physician and get a prognosis from a Gastroenterologist, if possible.

� Surgeries, like Nissan Laparoscopic Fundoplication and some other surgical techniques, are available to treat the disease. I was told the Fundoplication I received could be as much as seventy percent successful. It is best to weigh the advice of your physician with family members before agreeing to any forms of surgical treatment.

� A lot of emphasis is placed on certain lifestyle changes as well as medical treatment, and any surgical treatment of this disease will certainly entail post-surgical lifestyle changes, not only as part of the recovery process, but as a continuing way of life.

What are some of the lifestyle changes that are recommended?

� Raising the head of the bed at least six inches is one effective treatment offering a degree of relief while sleeping, however gravity will pose its own problems. A bed with a footboard and different types of sheets, linen instead of silk for example, will help.

� Getting plenty of the right kind of exercise is extremely important. Any kind of exercise that caused me to breathe heavily also caused me to experience heartburn and coughing-a sure sign I was getting stomach contents up in my lungs again. I found brisk walking helps me to maintain my weight while still not aggressive enough to cause renewed symptoms.

� Watching what is eaten. Keep a log of meals: what is eaten, how much, when, the reaction, if any.

âÂ?¢ Be aware of your body and learn its reaction to many different stimuli. Learn to recognize the subtle differences between coughing from an allergy attack and coughing from GERD. If I can’t tell the difference, I will take an acid reducer along with an over-the-counter allergy medication, but consult a medical professional before taking any medication-prescription or over-the-counter.

� Avoid activities that you have learned trigger attacks. Do not eat or drink anything at least an hour before going to bed.

� You may find that intimate activities trigger heartburn or more severe attacks of GERD. Talk these issues over with your spouse and work out suitable compromises.

� Learn to eat more than three meals a day, in small amounts. Snacking is much more effective than gorging.

� Try not to drink too much liquid, especially at one time. This one gave me a lot of trouble because I was raised on the old maxim, drink at least eight glasses of water a day. I was a regular camel.

� You may need to avoid caffeine. Another liquid to experiment with and quite possibly avoid is carbonated beverages.

� The use of alcohol may need to be minimized or avoided.

Some more thoughts from a survivor.

� There are important side effects to consider when discussing any surgical procedure and the same goes for ones used to treat GERD.

� One side effect to discuss with your doctor is the possibility of pancreatitis. It is a painful, potentially fatal inflammation of the pancreas, an organ that is vital to life and is not currently transplantable. Two months after my surgical recovery, I found myself in the hospital emergency ward with an aggressive case of pancreatitis. The doctor told me I could have died.

� If you opt for surgery, be prepared for at least one month of pure liquids, and not very much of those. You may be amazed at how little you can eat before feeling absolutely stuffed. I know I was.

âÂ?¢ If you suffer from chronic flatulence, give some thought to the fact that all the internal organs are connected. The intestines to the stomach, the stomach to the esophagus, etc. Keep some gas relief medicine handy. I’ve found that if I am experiencing heartburn and have gas symptoms, I can relieve the heartburn sometimes by taking something to get rid of the gas, hence the reason for dodging all carbonated beverages like the plague. Walking also helps sometimes to relieve gas pains.

âÂ?¢ Pay attention to posture. Don’t slouch. Remember what your mother said. There was a good reason for her sage advice. Slouching and other poor posture causes the lower ribcage to put pressure on the stomach which can cause GERD symptoms.

� Wear loose fitting clothing, suspenders instead of belts, loose fitting pants and skirts.

� Consciously work to eliminate or minimize stress. This universal plague of all humankind is deadly. It has so many ill effects on the human body, it is mind-boggling to attempt to list them. Exercise helps us to cope with stress as does religious faith. Prayer has been shown to be an extremely effective stress reliever.

� Get plenty of rest. Proper rest is essential to a healthy body and a healthy mind. Know when to quit.

Gerd can be a painful and frightening experience. But with knowledge and treatment, you can live a happy, productive life.

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