Frequent heartburn and acid reflux could be more than just a nuisance

Acid reflux happens to almost everyone, especially after a spicy meal, but if it’s happening twice a week or more to you, it could be doing more harm than you realize.

Heartburn and acid indigestion are some of the common symptoms associated with Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease or GERD. Many experience GERD, including pregnant women!

When GERD is not treated with diet and weight loss, it can become a chronic condition and damage the lining of the esophagus. Over the long term, this stomach acid exposure causes the normal cells in the esophagus to become abnormal, a condition known as Barrett’s esophagus. Barrett’s increases a person’s risk of esophageal cancer.

Six factors that increase risk.

Hemant Chatrath, M.D., of Meritus Digestive Health Specialists, says patients have a greater risk of developing Barrett’s esophagus if they present all six of the following factors:

  1. Male
  2. 50 years old or older
  3. Caucasian
  4. Frequent smoker
  5. Already experiencing chronic reflux
  6. Obese

“Symptoms of GERD include reflux, heartburn and difficulty swallowing,” says Dr. Chatrath.

Beyond long-term reflux, Barrett’s esophagus usually does not present additional symptoms. This can make it difficult to identify and a patient could unknowingly be at an elevated risk for esophageal cancer.

Dr. Chatrath recommends an endoscopy procedure for anyone experiencing chronic reflux who is not getting better with medication. During an endoscopy, the doctor will diagnose the esophagus and determine if any abnormal or precancerous cells are present.

Radiofrequency ablation treatment

“When Barrett’s esophagus is diagnosed and the patient has precancerous cells, he/she can undergo radiofrequency ablation, so the chances of cancer developing are dramatically lowered,” says Dr. Chatrath.

The endoscopic procedure Radiofrequency Ablation or RFA eliminates the abnormal cells in the esophagus, allowing the body to generate healthy tissue.

According to Dr. Chatrath, a patient with Barrett’s esophagus can expect a series of endoscopies every three to six months to determine if abnormal cells are present and require the RFA procedure. For most patients, between one and three RFA sessions is sufficient to restore normal esophageal tissue. Once all the precancerous cells are gone, a yearly endoscopy is recommended to make sure the abnormal cells don’t come back.

See a Barrett’s specialist

Patients with chronic reflux and especially those who present all six factors commonly associated with Barrett’s esophagus, should prioritize seeing a specialist.

Doctors like Dr. Chatrath, who are experienced with Barrett’s esophagus and the RFA  procedure, are well equipped to identify the subtle, abnormal cells that point to the condition.

As obesity and smoking use have increased, the risk of cancer, including esophageal cancer, has also risen. Historically, Barrett’s esophagus has not been recognized in time, but awareness and RFA treatment can reduce the chance of cancer to as low as one to two percent. The recovery prognosis is good when chronic reflux is not ignored.

Meritus Health, at 11116 Medical Campus Road, east of Hagerstown, is the largest health system in the area, providing hospital and outpatient services to the community. Subscribe to Your Health Matters, a monthly e-newsletter with important health information, at