What is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)?


gerdGastroesophageal reflux disease, commonly known as GERD is a chronic condition that occurs when the ring of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus becomes weak or opens when it should not, allowing the contents of the stomach to flow back into the esophagus. When this touches the lining of the esophagus, a person may experience the symptoms of reflux, or “heartburn”. For most people this happens occasionally and is not a concern, but when it occurs regularly, it can lead to serious health problems. GERD is a common health problem for people diagnosed with an intellectual disability and/or autism, but it may be not be easily diagnosed, especially if a person is not able to communicate verbally.

The most common symptom of GERD is the frequent experience of heartburn - a painful, burning sensation in the middle of the chest or upper abdomen, or behind the breastbone. It often gets worse after bending over or lying down. However, not all adults with GERD have heartburn. Other signs or symptoms may also include:

  • a taste of food or stomach acid in the back of the mouth after eating
  • bad breath
  • nausea, vomiting
  • problems with swallowing or painful swallowing
  • respiratory problems
  • erosion of teeth enamel
  • sleep disruptions
  • unusual behavior patterns during or after mealtimes.

GERD can be caused by many things, such as increased abdominal pressure from being overweight, obese, or pregnant; taking certain medications; smoking, or inhaling secondhand smoke; having a hiatal hernia; or from having a Helicobacter pylori infection. Depending on the cause and severity of symptoms, treatment may include lifestyle changes, medication, surgery, or a combination of these.

GERD is usually diagnosed by symptoms and medical history. It is important to discuss all concerns regarding symptoms with your health care provider. If heartburn or other symptoms do not improve with lifestyle changes or medication, further testing may be needed. Although not all causes are known, maintaining a healthy weight, smoking cessation, and reducing stress can help decrease the risk of GERD. For more information, Johns Hopkins has a helpful resource sheet titled “10 Tips to Prevent Reflux Disease”:  https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/international/_downloads/JHI130231%20Tipsheet%2010%20tips%20to%20prevent%20Reflux%20Disease-5%20JHMI.pdf

PCHC has a Health Promotion Activity Plan for GERD which is located at: