Do you keep antacids within arms’ reach? Do you sleep upright in a chair or propped up by pillows? Do you experience recurrent pneumonia?
If you answered yes to the bulk of those questions, it may be time to seek medical help for extinguishing the uncomfortable, frequent burn of acid reflux.
“Acid reflux isn’t new, but it hasn’t been treated to the extent it is now,” said Dr. Michael Lemon, general surgeon at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center (EIRMC). “Let’s face it: as Americans we aren’t getting any healthier. As our weight increases, so does our abdominal pressure, and that leads to acid reflux.”
Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid repeatedly flows back into the esophagus. The backwash of acid irritates the esophagus lining, and over time, serious complications can arise.
More than 3 million people in the United States suffer from acid reflux. While relief can often come by making healthy lifestyle changes and taking over-the-counter medications, in some stubborn cases, surgery proves to be most beneficial.
Suffering from acid reflux? Try these at-home changes as a first line of defense:
Well-timed dinner. Schedule the last meal of the day several hours before bedtime.
“The recommendation is to eat 4 hours before bed,” Dr. Lemon said. “Generally, that gives the stomach enough time to empty out, and it often will help alleviate symptoms.”
- Lose excess weight. Extra stomach weight increases abdominal pressure, aggravating the problem.
“No one likes to hear that they need to lose weight, but it can make a tremendous difference in so many aspects of health, including acid reflux,” Dr. Lemon said. “One patient came to me for an evaluation after two other physicians recommended weight loss. I confirmed their findings: abdominal weight caused her acid reflux and other issues. She left my office and lost 50 lbs. over 6 months. When she returned for the next visit, she no longer tested positive for acid reflux. She avoided surgery by choosing a healthier lifestyle. That’s wonderful!”
- Over-the-counter meds. Lemon says antacids can do the trick short-term, but he advises that if a person needs antacids around the clock, it’s time to talk with a physician about medical intervention.
Stubborn acid reflux? A gold-standard surgery, called nissen fundoplication, can provide permanent relief.
When acid reflux won’t quit, medical intervention may be necessary. Initially, a primary care physician will likely recommend an upper endoscopy, a procedure using a scope to observe the inner lining of the upper digestive tract. Depending on results, a surgical procedure called nissen fundoplication may be recommended.
During a nissen fundoplication, a surgeon wraps and secures a portion of the stomach around itself at the bottom of the esophagus, creating a sphincter (tightening muscle). This new sphincter allows food to enter the stomach, but blocks acid from back flowing into the esophagus.
“A nissen fundoplication is the gold standard treatment for someone who suffers daily from acid reflux,” Dr. Lemon said. “We use the patient’s own anatomy, it’s minimally invasive, and it provides a lasting solution. I’m doing this procedure once or twice a week, and it’s rewarding to see how quickly a patient’s life improves.”
Dr. Lemon performs nissen fundoplications at EIRMC with a well-trained team and using the highly acclaimed, robot-assisted da Vinci Surgical System. Patients who undergo the treatment stay overnight in the hospital and consume a liquid diet for 2 weeks post-surgery.
“The stomach is made for acid. It has thick walls so it’s not self-digested by acid. On the other hand, the esophagus is a thin-walled organ and not equipped to deal with acid. In fact, esophageal cancer is now caused by acid reflux more than by smoking. This surgery can fix that,” Dr. Lemon said. “So, if you’re constantly eating antacid tablets and can’t extinguish the acid reflux burn, it’s time to talk with your doctor. Nissen fundoplication may be the procedure you need.”