Anti-reflux surgery

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You’ve just finished eating a double chili dog, when it hits. That burning, belching feeling, like your dinner has taken a detour back up your throat. You’ve got heartburn, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD, for short. When heartburn becomes a frequent, unwelcome visitor and you’re tired of taking medicine to treat it, your doctor may recommend surgery.

Normally when you eat, food passes down this tube, called the esophagus. It crosses your diaphragm and enters your stomach through a hole.

Sometimes the muscles where your esophagus and stomach meet don’t close tightly enough, and this weakness allows acids from your stomach to back up into your esophagus, causing heartburn. The hole in your diaphragm may also be too big, letting part of your stomach slip into an opening in your chest. That’s called a hiatal hernia, and it can make your heartburn symptoms even worse.

If you don’t want to take heartburn medicine anymore, or if you’re dealing with complications like ulcers or bleeding in your esophagus, your doctor may recommend surgery to fix your hiatal hernia. Usually the surgery you’ll have is called fundoplication.

Fundoplication is done while you’re under general anesthesia, which means that you’ll be asleep and you won’t feel any pain. Before your surgery, your doctor will ask you to stop taking drugs like aspirin or warfarin, which makes it harder for your blood to clot. Also, you shouldn’t eat or drink anything after midnight the night before your surgery.

If you have open surgery, the surgeon will make one large cut in your belly area. With laparoscopic surgery, there are more cuts, but they’re much smaller. The surgeon will use a thin tube with a camera attached to see through these tiny holes and perform the surgery. A newer form of the procedure passes a special camera down your mouth into your esophagus.

Whatever way the surgery is done, the goal is to close your hiatal hernia with stitches and tighten the opening in your diaphragm to keep your stomach from poking through. The surgeon will also wrap the upper part of your stomach around the end of your esophagus so that acids from your stomach can’t back up into your esophagus.

Just like any procedure, hiatal hernia surgery can have risks. You might have bleeding, an infection, breathing problems, bloating, or pain when you swallow. Call your doctor for any symptoms that bother you or don’t go away.

Expect to stay in the hospital for about 4 to 6 days, and then spend a month to 6 weeks recovering at home with the open surgical procedure. Laparoscopic surgery will shorten your hospital stay to 1 to 3 days, and you’ll be back on your feet and at work in just 2 to 3 weeks.

Anti-reflux surgery is safe, and it works. After your surgery, you should have fewer problems with heartburn. But if that burning feeling creeps back up again, you might need to have a repeat surgery. To avoid another procedure, take your heartburn medicine if you need it. Oh, and take it easy on those chili dogs!

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 11/16/2011
  • Mitchell W. Hecht, MD FACP, Internal Medicine private practice in Roswell, GA; author of the nationally-syndicated medical column 'Ask Dr. H.' Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

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