Introduction to managing the symptoms of GORD

Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD or GERD) is a common and chronic gastrointestinal disorder. Nearly 80% of the population will experience symptoms of reflux at some stage in their lives. GORD is associated with prolonged exposure of the lower oesophageal mucosa to gastric contents, leading to symptoms of heartburn, regurgitation (feeling like the stomach contents are coming back up) and waterbrash (excess saliva in the mouth). Symptoms are often made worse by lying flat, are related to meals (especially fatty foods), and may be worsened by hot liquids or alcohol.

The severity of your symptoms does not always correspond to how badly your oesophagus is scarred or damaged. It is therefore important that you see a doctor so your condition can be properly investigated. GORD often requires life-long and regular use of anti-reflux therapies.

Treatment tends to pursue three main aims:

  1. Healing the damage to the oesophagus;
  2. Preventing complications such as Barrett’s oesophagus, strictures (narrowing), and oesophageal cancer; and
  3. Alleviating your symptoms and improving your quality of life.

GORD
 Only the last aim is considered in detail here. For more information on the management of complications of GORD, see
Gastro-Oesophageal Reflux Disease.

In general, a step-wise approach is used in the management of GORD symptoms. Usually you will be trialled on simple lifestyle measures, and then slowly have more aggressive treatments added if your symptoms don’t improve.

Before starting anti-reflux therapies, it is important that other causes of similar symptoms have been excluded. In particular, cardiac chest pain from angina can present quite similarly to reflux. Failure to treat an underlying heart problem could have serious consequences.


Management options

Managing GORD symptomsIf your GORD is mild it is likely that you will respond satisfactorily with simple lifestyle changes and over-the-counter antacids. In many cases, people are able to control their own symptoms and do not necessarily need to see a doctor. It is quite common for people to go to the doctor only when their symptoms become so severe that they interfere with daily functioning. However, it is important that you realise that reflux symptoms may be a marker of more serious underlying conditions. GORD can cause nasty complications, including oesophageal cancer, which need to be monitored throughout your treatment. In general, the longer you have symptoms of reflux, the greater risk you have for additional complications.

There are a number of symptoms that may suggest more serious problems and require urgent investigation. These are referred to as "alarm symptoms". It is important to see your doctor so they can conduct further investigations if you notice any:

  • Difficulty swallowing;
  • Pain when swallowing;
  • Blood in your vomit;
  • Dark, tarry stools (melaena);
  • Weight loss;
  • Anaemia: You may notice you are more pale (particularly in the skin creases and conjunctiva of the eyes), or fatigue more easily.


Lifestyle changes

Lifestyle changes that can help manage GORD symptoms include:

  • Losing weight (if you are overweight);
  • Elevating your head in bed;
  • Avoiding lying down or sleeping for 3 hours after a meal;
  • Reducing alcohol consumption;
  • Quitting smoking;
  • Avoiding fatty foods and foods that typically trigger symptoms, such as:
  • Avoiding medications that trigger your reflux symptoms (discuss with your doctor).

Although some of these lifestyle changes can be difficult to achieve, they are excellent therapies as they are low cost and have few side effects. These measures are recommended for virtually everyone with GORD and should be continued even when using other therapies.


Over-the-counter and antacid therapy

Managing GORD symptomsDepending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe medications or recommend over-the-counter (OTC) preparations. These may be needed for a short time while you have symptoms or on a long-term basis, depending on the features of your symptoms.

Many people self-treat themselves with over-the-counter medications. These include simple antacids and alginates. Antacids work by neutralising the gastric acid so that it is no longer damaging to the oesophagus. Alginates, on the other hand, work by forming a thick gel coating on the surface of the stomach contents to stop them from refluxing. Lots of studies have confirmed these agents produce rapid symptom relief, but their effects only last for a short time so they need to be taken frequently. Furthermore, these treatments do not change the underlying amount of acid secretion or prevent complications, so they may be a more temporary measure.

Histamine-2 receptor antagonists (H2RA) such as cimetidine (e.g. Tagamet) and ranitidine (e.g. Zantac) are also available over-the-counter. These agents have been proven in clinical trials to reduce gastric acid levels. The different drugs of this class vary slightly in their potencies and onset of action. H2RAs can be taken before activities known to trigger reflux, such as eating heavy meals or exercising, to prevent the onset of symptoms.


Antisecretory medications

Suppressing the amount of acid produced in the stomach has been shown to be the most successful treatment for GORD. Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) work by inhibiting a special enzyme on the surface of acid-producing cells in the stomach. This blocks acid production and reduces the overall level of acid in the stomach. PPIs are considered the most effective medications for symptom relief and may be used in nearly all cases, except perhaps if your disease is very mild. PPI medications are available via a prescription from your doctor.

PPI drugs available in Australia include:

  • Pantoprazole (Somac);
  • Rabeprazole (Pariet); 
  • Omeprazole (Losec);
  • Esomeprazole (Nexium);
  • Lansoprazole (Zoton).

Clinical trials have confirmed that these medications treat symptoms such as heartburn, acid regurgitation and painful swallowing. They are effective in approximately 80% of patients. PPIs are able treat symptoms and heal oesophageal damage more rapidly than any other therapy available. There is still debate over which PPI is the most effective, so different doctors may prescribe different medications based on their experience.

If you have severe reflux, you will probably be treated long-term with a PPI medication. Often the maintenance dose is smaller than that prescribed in an acute period of symptoms. If you are on long-term treatment and suddenly stop taking your medication, it is likely you will experience a recurrence or relapse in your symptoms. Even with adequate therapy, it is not uncommon to have some occasional flares of symptoms. PPI medications should be taken before meals, as prescribed by your doctor. Usually the daily dose will be split into a morning and evening dose.

PPI medications are generally well tolerated and tend to have few side effects. However, the following adverse effects may occasionally occur (in approximately 5 out of 100 patients taking these medications):

Most side effects are only mild and temporary during the start of treatment. A more serious side effect of vitamin B12 deficiency has been reported, but this is exceedingly rare. Overall, PPIs are excellent medications in terms of efficacy and minimal side effects. Perhaps the only factor limiting more widespread use is cost, as some of the agents can be quite expensive.

PPIs 

 For more information, see PPIs (Proton Pump Inhibitors).

  


Prokinetic medications

Some drugs such as metoclopramide and domperidone (Motilium) may be used as add-on therapies to help control symptoms. These agents work by enhancing the contractions of the stomach and increasing its rate of emptying. This essentially reduces the contents of the stomach so that less is available to reflux back into the oesophagus, thus reducing damage. 


Surgery

Surgery is usually only used in cases of very severe reflux symptoms, particularly in younger patients who would otherwise need long-term drug therapy to manage symptoms. Approximately 80% of patients undergoing surgery will demonstrate improvement in symptoms. However, controversy exists over the long-term effectiveness of this mode of treatment, and indications for surgery are less clear-cut than for other types of treatment.


Endoscopic therapy

Occasionally reflux symptoms may be treated endoscopically by inserting a tube down the throat and either sewing, burning or injecting damaged areas of the mucosa (lining). Unfortunately the long-term efficacy of these treatments is unknown so their role is limited to a very select number of patients. In addition, endoscopic treatment can cause significant complications such as pain, gastrointestinal injury and short-term dysphagia.


Managing GORD in children

Managing GORD symptomsReflux is a very common condition in children but the symptoms are often non-specific. To date there is no ideal method of diagnosing or treating the problem in infants and children. However, you may gain some comfort from knowing that the symptoms of reflux are extremely common and that the condition is not due to any fault on your part. Often simple reassurance from a medical practitioner is helpful in improving both your and your child’s quality of life.

As demonstrated above, there are many different treatments available for symptoms of reflux. Unfortunately there is limited experience with these therapies in children. Therefore when considering treatment for your child it is very important that you consider the potential side effects of the medications. You should remember that mild reflux is generally not a serious condition and that your child is otherwise well and healthy.

In most cases, symptoms of reflux will resolve spontaneously by approximately 12 months of age. Your doctor can help explain the condition more so that you understand that it is usually better for your child NOT to have extensive investigations or multiple drug therapies. This will avoid unnecessary side effects from unnecessary treatments.

Some management options for reflux symptoms in children are:

  • Reassurance and education: Learning more about your child’s condition can allay some of your fears about the seriousness of the condition. Support groups such as RISA can help provide reassurance and educational materials;
  • Posturing: There is some evidence that being in certain positions while feeding increase the incidence of reflux. Laying your child prone (on their stomach) with their head slightly elevated during feeding is associated with the least amount of reflux. It can be helpful to keep your child upright for about half an hour after feeds. However, caution should be taken positioning your child on their stomach, as there is an increased risk of SIDS;
  • Dietary treatment: Milk thickeners and thickened feeds can reduce regurgitation, but there is limited evidence that they reduce reflux. Infants with mild acid reflux may respond well to simple thickening of their feeds;
  • Alginates: There is limited experience with antacids in infants, but they may have some benefit in improving symptoms of mild GORD. However, side effects on bone metabolism (including rickets), diarrhoea and constipation can occur from these medications;
  • Proton pump inhibitors: These are the recommended treatments for severe reflux in children. These treatments can cause side effects which should be discussed with your doctor. The pros and cons of treatment should be weighed up on an individual basis.

Children with very severe reflux symptoms and persistent vomiting can develop more serious complications such as failure to thrive and malnutrition. In these cases, more drastic measures may be required such as feeding through a nasogastric tube (a tube passed through the nose and down into the stomach, through which nutrient-rich puréed foods can be fed) or, very rarely, surgery.

More information

Acid reflux and heartburn
For more information on acid reflux and heartburn and related investigations, treatments and supportive care, see
Acid Reflux and Heartburn.

 

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