Patients with longstanding GERD can experience severe complications
Peptic Stricture: This results from chronic acid injury and scarring of the lower esophagus. Patients complain of food sticking in the lower esophagus. Heartburn symptoms may actually lessen as the esophageal opening narrows down preventing acid reflux. Stretching of the esophagus and proton pump inhibitor medication are needed to control and prevent peptic strictures.
Barrett’s Esophagus: A serious complication of chronic GERD is Barrett’s esophagus. Here the lining of the esophagus changes to resemble the intestine. Patients may complain of less heartburn with Barrett’s esophagus — that’s the good news. Unfortunately, this is a pre-cancerous condition: patients with Barrett’s esophagus have approximately a 30-fold increased risk of developing esophageal cancer. These patients should be followed by endoscopy by a trained gastroenterologist familiar with this disease.
Esophageal Cancer: Recent scientific reports have confirmed that if GERD is left untreated for many years, it could lead to this most serious complication — Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer. Frequent heartburn symptoms with a duration of several years cannot simply be dismissed — there can be severe consequences of delaying diagnosis and treatment. This increased risk of chronic, longstanding GERD sufferers to develop cancer demonstrates the true severity of heartburn. In patients with chronic heartburn, an endoscopy will often be recommended to visually monitor the condition of the lining of the esophagus and identify or confirm the absence of any suspicious or pre-malignant lesions, such as Barrett’s esophagus. So, do not ignore your heartburn. If you are having heartburn two or more times a week, it is time to see your
physician and in all likelihood a gastrointestinal specialist. In most cases an endoscopy should be performed to evaluate the severity of GERD and identify the possible presence of the pre- malignant condition — Barrett’s esophagus. The preventative strategy is to treat GERD. If it goes untreated and cancer does develop, the survival rate for esophageal cancer, at this time, is dismal.
Ignoring persistent heartburn symptoms can lead to severe consequences
Study links duration of heartburn to severity of esophageal disease
Esophageal disease may be perceived in many forms, with heartburn being the most common. The severity of heartburn is measured by how long a given episode lasts, how often symptoms occur, and/or their intensity. Since the esophageal lining is sensitive to stomach contents, persistent and prolonged exposure to these contents may cause changes such as inflammation, ulcers, bleeding and scarring with obstruction. A pre- cancerous condition called Barrett’s esophagus may also occur. Barrett’s esophagus causes severe damage to the lining of the esophagus when the body attempts to protect the esophagus from acid by replacing its normal lining with cells that are similar to the intestinal lining.
Research was conducted to determine whether the duration of heartburn symptoms increases the risk of having esophageal complications. The study found that inflammation in the esophagus not only increased with the duration of reflux symptoms, but that Barrett’s esophagus likewise was more frequently diagnosed in these patients. Those patients with reflux symptoms and a history of inflammation in the past were more likely to have Barrett’s esophagus than those without a history of esophageal inflammation.