8 Complications Of Acid Reflux

Nearly everyone has an attack of heartburn at some point in their lives. In the vast majority of cases the condition is temporary and mild causing only transient discomfort. If patients develop persistent gastroesophageal reflux disease with frequent relapses, however, and it remains untreated, serious complications may develop over time. They can include the following :

1. Erosive Esophagitis (Severe Inflammation In The Esophagus)

Erosive esophagitis develops in chronic GERD patients when acid causes sufficient irritation and inflammation to produce extensive and injures the esophagus. Some studies have suggested that overweight Caucasian males with GERD are at highest risk for this condition. In anyone, the longer and more severe the GERD condition, the higher the risk for erosive esophagitis.

8 Complications Of Acid Reflux

Bleeding --

In one study, bleeding occurred in over 8% of patients with erosive esophagitis (severe inflammation of the esophagus), which is associated with GERD. In very severe cases, the patient may detect dark-colored, tarry stools (indicating the presence of blood) or vomit blood, particularly if ulcers have developed in the esophagus. This is a sign of severe damage and requires immediate attention. Sometimes long-term bleeding can result in iron deficiency anemia and may sometimes even require emergency transfusions. This condition can occur without heartburn or other warning symptoms, or even obvious blood in the stools.

2. Severe Narrowing (Stricture) Of The Esophagus

If the esophagus becomes severely injured over time, narrowed regions called strictures can develop, which may impair swallowing (dysphagia). Food may even become blocked in some cases. Stretching procedures or surgery may be required to restore normal swallowing. Paradoxically, strictures may actually prevent other GERD symptoms by helping to keep acid from traveling up the esophagus.

3. Barrett's Esophagus

In some cases, BE develops as an advanced stage of erosive esophagitis. BE results in abnormal cellular changes in the esophagus that, in turn, puts a patient at risk for esophageal cancer. There are many issues involved with BE, however, including its prevalence and true severity that are unresolved. Of note, GERD itself poses no significant risk for esophageal cancer. One study reported an annual incidence of 6.5 cancer cases per 10,000 people with regular GERD symptoms.

4. Dental Problems

Dental erosion (the loss of the tooth's enamel coating) is a very common problem among GERD patients, including children. It results from the acid backing up into the mouth and eroding the enamel.

5. Chronic Throat Conditions

20% to 60% of patients with GERD have atypical symptoms in the throat (hoarseness, sore throat) without any significant heartburn. A failure to diagnose and treat GERD may lead to persistent throat conditions such as chronic laryngitis, hoarseness, difficulty in speaking, sore throat, cough, constant throat clearing, and granulomas (soft, pink bumps) on the vocal cords.

6. Sleep Apnea

GERD commonly occurs with obstructive sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing stops temporarily but repeatedly during sleep. It is not clear which condition is responsible for the other, but GERD is particularly severe when both conditions occur together. One study reported that spasms in the vocal cords caused by acid reflux may block the flow of air and cause sleep apnea in adults. On the other hand, other research suggests that the disordered breathing in sleep apnea alters pressure in the chest area and causes GERD. Both conditions may also have risk factors in common, such as sleeping on the back. Studies suggest that in such patients GERD can be markedly improved with CPAP, a device that opens the airways and is the standard treatment for severe sleep apnea.

7. Problems In Other Areas, Including Asthma, Throat And Airways Leading To The Lungs

Asthma --

Asthma and GERD often occur together. Studies report that reflux disorder coincides with between 32% and 80% of asthma cases. Some theories for the causal connection between GERD and asthma are as follows :

  • Acid leaking from the lower esophagus in GERD stimulates the vagus nerves, which run through the gastrointestinal tract. These stimulated nerves in turn trigger the nearby airways in the lung to constrict, which causes asthma symptoms.

  • Acid back-up that reaches the mouth may be inhaled into the airways (aspirated). Here, the acid triggers a reaction in the airways that cause asthma symptoms.

There is some evidence that asthma causes GERD. In contrast, some evidence suggests that GERD causes asthma. Some clinical trials report that treating GERD in patients who also have asthma reduces symptoms of both conditions. Not all such patients report improved asthma symptoms with GERD treatments, and they do not appear to have much effect on actual lung function. One study suggested that this approach works in asthmatic individuals who tended to be overweight and to have severe GERD in the lower part of the esophagus.

8. Other Respiratory and Airway Conditions

Current studies indicate an association between GERD and various upper respiratory problems that occur in the sinuses, ear and nasal passages, and airways of the lung. People with GERD appear to have an above-average risk for chronic bronchitis, chronic sinusitis, emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis (lung scarring), and recurrent pneumonia. If a person inhales fluid from the esophagus (aspirates) into the lungs, serious pneumonia can occur. It is not yet known whether treatment of GERD would also reduce the risk for these respiratory conditions.

Older people are at higher risk for complications from persistent GERD. The following conditions also put individuals at risk for recurrent and serious GERD :

  • The esophagus is very inflamed.
  • Initial symptoms are severe.
  • Symptoms persist in spite of treatments that successfully heal the esophagus.
  • There are severe underlying muscular abnormalities.