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Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition in which acids from the stomach flow back up into the esophagus (an action called reflux). Reflux occurs if the muscular actions in the esophagus or other protective mechanisms fail.
The hallmark symptoms of GERD are:
Although acid is a primary factor in damage caused by GERD, other products of the digestive tract, including pepsin and bile, can also be harmful.
The esophagus, commonly called the food pipe, is a narrow muscular tube about nine-and-a-half inches long. It begins below the tongue and ends at the stomach. The esophagus is narrowest at the top and bottom; it also narrows slightly in the middle.
The esophagus consists of three basic layers:
When a person swallows food, the esophagus moves it into the stomach through the action of wave-like muscle contractions, called peristalsis. In the stomach, acid and various enzymes break down the starch, fat, and protein in food. The lining of the stomach has a thin layer of mucus that protects it from these fluids.
If acid and enzymes back up into the esophagus, however, its lining offers only a weak defense against these substances. Instead, several other factors protect the esophagus. The most important structure protecting the esophagus may be the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The LES is a band of muscle around the bottom of the esophagus, where it meets the stomach.
If the pressure barrier is not enough to prevent regurgitation and acid backs up (reflux), peristaltic action of the esophagus serves as an additional defense mechanism, pushing the backed-up contents back down into the stomach.
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