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What You Don’t Know About Heartburn CAN Hurt You

The General Surgeon, Dr. David Johnson

By the time the paramedics got to me I thought I was dying of a heart attack, so imagine my relief when I found out it was only heartburn. When the doctor sent me home with a prescription I had not a care in the world; I was confident that the prescribed medicine would cure me.

 And I thought it did because I felt fine and could eat just about anything I wanted for a long time. It was like a miracle until eventually after years of taking the daily PPIs, my symptoms came back with a vengeance and no amount of medicine stopped the pain. 

Desperate for help, I sought the care of a specialist and was shocked to be diagnosed with Esophageal Cancer. After several weeks of chemotherapy, surgeons removed my esophagus and gave me the devastating news that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. 

While I am determined to keep fighting, the anger and frustration I feel is overwhelming. Why was I not warned that my heartburn symptoms were only being masked by the medication I was taking? Why was I not told about the possibility that my disease could be progressing like a silent killer to a deadly stage? I am 52 years old, a wife and a mother of three and I just want to live.

Unfortunately, the heartbreaking story of this mother is becoming an increasingly common and familiar one for doctors like me. Today it is estimated that one in three adults suffer from heartburn or other symptoms associated with gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Over the last decade the incidence of GERD has increased over 30%. With statistics like those, I am surprised that acid reflux disease is not categorized as an epidemic.

Many people with GERD are unaware of the dangers associated with their “harmless” heartburn symptoms. Heartburn is a burning sensation in the upper belly or abdomen and it is the most common symptom of GERD. However, everyone is affected differently and many experience a variety of other symptoms including several “atypical” symptoms such as constant throat clearing, hoarseness, chronic coughing and difficulty swallowing.

Here in the Coachella Valley we have a large group of 50+ adults. Many have chosen this as the ideal location for retirement after years of hard work. Unfortunately, I see far too many patients today who are struggling with the symptoms of GERD. Just when they are looking forward to enjoying time with friends and family, their quality of life is rapidly declining. Like the 52-year-old mother noted above, most are shocked to find that their escalating problems stem from a simple, often ignored, symptom like heartburn. Worse yet, they are saddened when they realize that their current problems could have been avoided.

GERD is commonly treated today by taking PPI medications daily, which decreases acid production in the stomach and makes the stomach contents less acidic. When these non-acidic stomach contents come into contact with the esophagus there is little or no heartburn pain. For most patients, these medications produce a general feeling of well-being even while the patient’s disease continues and could be progressing.

The FDA recommends that PPI treatment not exceed 14 days, but many consumers purchase these medications over-the-counter and take them daily, often for the rest of their life. Doctors also prescribe them as lifetime “maintenance medications” making this today’s status quo treatment model.

Most patients, believing that they are taking care of their health by following their doctor’s orders, are rarely advised of the potential adverse affects of these drugs and are not informed of alternative treatment options. Unfortunately, some are stunned to find out that their “heartburn” has turned into a pre-cancerous condition called Barrett’s Esophagus or reflux-induced esophageal cancer known as adenocarcinoma.

In the United States, the incidence of esophageal cancer is rising faster than any other cancer, and the rate of increase in reflux disease is alarming. I think it’s time to change these trends. This can only be accomplished if those experiencing heartburn educate themselves on their symptoms, the underlying causes, and all available treatment options.

For those in the early stages of reflux disease, there are many options including diet adjustments and lifestyle changes. Unfortunately, as this disease progresses, these viable alternatives become less effective tools to manage symptoms.

As a doctor, I would like to see less of these cases. The enormity of this disease, its growth rate, and the pain it inflicts on its victims are frightening. However, there is hope. In most cases, this disease – at any stage – can be arrested. Although physicians have some tools to change the course of reflux disease, many tools are in the hands of those suffering. It is important that everyone with heartburn, regurgitation, a chronic cough, ongoing hoarseness, or constant throat clearing, stop ignoring their symptoms. There are countless articles and information available on the Internet today, allowing anyone to begin their research on these symptoms and determine a plan of attack.

In our practice, we encourage patients with GERD to learn more about their disease, discuss how it has affected their lives, and develop a plan of action for relief of symptoms to slow the progression of their disease, if not cure it. In addition to our consultation, we recommend patients visit www.RefluxMD.com, a website solely dedicated to reflux disease, with resources, testimonials and a complete GERD stage assessment to determine how far their disease has progressed.

It is my hope that through patient education and empowerment we can reverse the course of reflux disease and improve the quality of life for those suffering from GERD.

Dr. Johnson is a board-certified general surgeon with Premier Surgical Associates in Palm Springs and can be reached at (760) 424.8224. 

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