GERD Can become Dangerous When Ignored or Untreated

It's easy to ignore the symptoms of acid reflux by taking a few antacids, telling yourself it's just nothing, and letting things slide until the next attack. But it can be very dangerous to follow this course, especially if you are experiencing heartburn every day or nearly every day. As the disease progresses, it may cause damage to your esophagus that could lead to Barrett's esophagus, a precancerous condition. You may also suffer from esophageal bleeding and other illnesses that can accompany chronic untreated GERD.

I have seen the consequences of people waiting too long. I have treated some patients whose food tubes were so narrowed by their GERD that they had trouble swallowing or eating. It may sound like a great way to lose weight, but I can assure you, it is no fun.

One of my patients who waited too long was Stan. He was very scared when he arrived at the emergency room with a small piece of meat stuck in his esophagus. It wouldn't come up and it wouldn't go down, and his saliva was bubbling up because of the lack of room in his esophagus.

Using an endoscope, a special tool that goes into he food tube and allows the doctor to see the interior, as well as forceps and other instruments, I broke up and removed most of the food particle, except for a leftover piece that was small enough to pass through his very narrowed esophagus. I then prescribed a double does if a strong acid blocker of the proton pump inhibitor type.

Several weeks later, I had Stan come back so I could check his esophagus again. Stan's esophagus was very narrow, so I recommended a procedure in which I would widen his esophagus with special equipment. He agreed, and the endoscopy was performed. Stan felt much better afterwards; however, I urged him to follow my food guidelines, plus take the medication I had prescribed so that his GERD wouldn't become so bad that the earlier distressing situation of the stuck food would happen again.

Both times I treated Stan - when I removed the meat and later when he returned for follow-up - I couldn't help thinking that it was very unfortunate that no one had treated his chronic heartburn years ago. This painful and frightening incident could easily have been avoided if Stan had been treated for his acid reflux earlier.