You know that feeling. That burning in your esophagus that starts in your stomach and slowly creeps up. It’s so uncomfortable it often keeps you up at night, especially after eating a trigger meal or a late dinner. It’s called acid reflux, and it affects approximately one in five adults in America.
What Is Acid Reflux?
Acid reflux happens when gastric acid from your stomach gets backed up in your esophagus. This occurs because when the muscle at the bottom of your esophagus opens to let food into your stomach, it can sometimes relax too frequently and for too long. The muscle is called the lower esophageal sphincter, or the LES.
When the LES backs up, it causes injury to the esophagus, hence that burning feeling. This is commonly known as acid reflux.
Who Is at Risk for Acid Reflux
Anyone can suffer from it. However, some lifestyle factors increase your risk of developing it. They include:
- Excessive caffeine consumption
- Eating acidic foods such as citrus, fatty foods, spicy foods and chocolate
- Excess weight
- The use of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen) or aspirin
The Many Dangers of Acid Reflux
Acid reflux does more than just damage the esophagus. Thankfully, when it is infrequent (say, only after eating spicy foods, for example) it usually heals quickly and does not cause any permanent damage to the esophagus. Still, if you suffer from it frequently, you could be at risk for more serious problems. Here are just a few:
- Damage to your esophagus, including esophagitis, can cause inflammation, pain to the esophagus, and pain when swallowing.
- Esophageal ulcers can develop along the esophagus’s lining and cause chest pains, painful swallowing and nausea. A doctor can treat esophageal ulcers with medication.
- Barrett’s esophagus is a condition that can affect up to 10 percent of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) sufferers. Barrett’s esophagus can cause precancerous cells to form in the stomach; thankfully, only about 1 percent of those who develop Barrett’s esophagus will develop esophageal cancer.
- Esophageal stricture is a condition that develops over time from frequent damage to the esophagus due to acid reflux. Esophageal stricture narrows the esophagus, making it hard to swallow. This can cause dehydration and weight loss.
Acid Reflux and Tongue Tie
Another lesser-known culprit is a condition known as tongue tie. Tongue tie occurs when the lingual frenulum that tethers the tongue to the floor of the mouth is thicker or tighter than usual. Though tongue tie is often corrected during infancy, there are many adults who still have tongue tie. Tongue tie can cause difficulty speaking, eating, and swallowing, and yes, it can even cause acid reflux.
A tongue tie causes acid reflux by improper swallowing because the tongue tie allows in more air during digestion than it should. This can also be present in infants with tongue ties, causing GERD, which can cause difficulties nursing and gaining weight.
Acid Reflux and Your Oral Health
Another danger of acid reflux that many people don’t consider is the danger it poses to your oral health. Stomach acid can travel up the esophagus and back into the mouth, which, as you might guess, can damage the teeth and gums. This includes acid erosion to the teeth.
Frequent acid touching your teeth can wear away at the enamel, causing acid erosion. When acid erodes your teeth, they become weak and brittle, making them more likely to chip or break and more vulnerable to cavities.
Acid erosion can also damage the gums by burning them and causing inflammation that lets bacteria into the bloodstream. This can cause gum disease, gingivitis and gum recession, and even cause the teeth to become loose or fall out.
Treating Acid Reflux
There are several ways to treat acid reflux. If you suffer from it infrequently, you can take many over-the-counter medications for relief. Another great way to stop acid reflux in its tracks is to avoid triggers such as spicy foods, eating late at night, and not maintaining a healthy weight.
If it is more severe, we recommend visiting a gastroenterologist for an endoscopy procedure. During this procedure, a tiny camera takes images of your esophagus to see if there are any ways to prevent acid reflux with the help of surgery.
The Bottom Line
Whether you have frequent acid reflux or only suffer from this condition occasionally, it is vital to take it seriously, especially when it comes to your oral health. While you may be able to “tough it out” with occasional acid reflux or heartburn, pay close attention to your teeth following each bout with the condition.
Because acid softens the enamel temporarily, drink plenty of water while you are suffering, and wait for about 30 minutes after symptoms subside to brush your teeth. This will allow the enamel to harden back up so you don’t damage your teeth while brushing.
If you suffer from chronic acid reflux, your teeth are at constant risk of damage, so be sure to address it before it causes permanent damage to your esophagus and your teeth! To learn more about the risks of acid reflux, and for a consultation with Dr. Tad Morgan, please contact the office today.