Causes & Symptoms

More than 60 million Americans experience acid reflux, or GERD, at least once a month. Symptoms most often occur after eating a heavy meal, or bending over or lying down, especially after eating. Many people notice more symptoms of reflux or GERD at night.

Symptoms of reflux and GERD can vary, but common symptoms include​:

  • Heartburn. The name says it all. Heartburn, also called acid indigestion, is a burning pain in the chest. Despite the name, heartburn does not affect the heart.
  • Regurgitation. The sensation of acid backing up into your throat or mouth is called regurgitation. It can cause a sour or bitter taste in the mouth, and even a “wet burp.”
  • Dyspepsia. A general term for stomach discomfort. Dyspepsia may refer to burping, nausea after eating, stomach bloating or fullness, or upper abdominal pain and discomfort.

Acid reflux itself is very common, and rarely serious, but symptoms should not be ignored as reflux can cause damage to the lining of the esophagus. Continual damage and scarring can lead to narrowing of the esophagus, which can make it difficult to swallow—a condition known as a stricture. Ongoing damage from acid reflux can cause a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, which can lead to esophageal cancer. If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important to talk to your doctor to determine the best course of treatment.

Reflux Causes

Acid reflux, also known as GERD, is a common condition, but the cause of reflux isn’t always clear. Reflux is triggered by an increase of acid in the stomach, which can develop for a number of reasons. Possible causes of acid reflux include:

  • Hiatal Hernia / Esophageal HerniaA common cause of reflux is an abdomen abnormality called a hiatal hernia, or esophageal hernia, in which the upper part of the abdomen pushes up through the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a muscle separating the abdomen from the chest. When it is working correctly, it helps contain acid in the stomach, but when a hiatal hernia is present, it is easier for acid to reflux into the esophagus.
  • Obesity. Being overweight or obese has been linked to an increased risk of acid reflux or GERD. Due to the excess weight of the abdominal wall, there is an increase in intra-abdominal pressure, which contributes greatly to reflux.
  • Pregnancy. Pregnancy can contribute to reflux in multiple ways. The prevailing hormones of pregnancy cause relaxation of the muscles surrounding the upper portion of the stomach, thereby allowing reflux of acid into the chest. Furthermore, growth of the baby within the abdominal cavity causes pressure against the diaphragm, which contributes to reflux as well. Reflux during pregnancy often worsens as the pregnancy progresses and improves after delivery.
  • Smoking. Smoking can also contribute to acid reflux in a number of ways, including:
    • Damaging mucous membranes
    • Impairing muscle reflexes in the throat
    • Increasing acid secretion
    • Reducing salivation, which neutralizes the effect of acid
    • Reducing diaphragm muscle function
  • Trigger foods. Certain foods such as alcohol, carbonated beverages, chocolate, citrus fruits, fatty or fried foods, tomato-based foods, garlic and onions, and spicy foods can cause acid reflux. Eating large meals or lying down right after eating can also trigger acid reflux.

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