Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or acid reflux, is a condition in which the stomach contents, including acid, leak back (reflux) into the esophagus. It occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a ring of muscle that acts like a valve between the esophagus and stomach, doesn't close properly. When refluxed stomach acid touches the lining of the esophagus, it can cause a burning sensation in the chest (heartburn), inflammation, and ultimately damage to the esophagus.
Persistent heartburn is the most frequent symptom of GERD. Other symptoms include chest pain, hoarseness in the morning, or trouble swallowing. The backup of digestive fluids in the esophagus may also cause dry cough, bad breath, and acid indigestion. About 1 in 10 people with chronic GERD develop "Barrett's esophagus," a condition where the esophageal lining becomes damaged and thickened.
No one specific cause of gastroesophageal reflux disease has been identified, although a hiatal hernia is thought to contribute to this condition. A hiatal hernia occurs when the upper part of the stomach is above the diaphragm, the muscle wall that separates the stomach from the chest. Thus, a hiatal hernia makes it easier for stomach acid to bypass the diaphragm and make its way into the esophagus. People of any age can develop a hiatal hernia; many otherwise healthy people over 50 have a small hernia.
GERD is a chronic (ongoing) disease. Treatment usually must be maintained even after symptoms have been alleviated. A special diet, abstinence from alcohol, long-term use of medication, and even surgery may be needed to bring acid reflux under control. It is essential that patients with GERD work with their physician to receive the most effective treatment available.
Left untreated, this disease can lead to serious complications, including scarring of the esophagus and asthma, and may increase the risk of esophageal cancer.
GERD itself rarely qualifies for disability benefits, since it can usually be treated with diet and medication. However, an individual could apply for disability benefits if GERD were to lead to a more serious complication like asthma, esophageal cancer, or stomach cancer.