Reports of Acid Reflux Symptoms Double, Study Finds

Acid reflux rates parallel obesity epidemic, experts say.

ByABC News
December 27, 2011, 1:32 PM

Dec. 27, 2011 — -- Claresa Fisher, 57, hasn't had a good night's sleep in the past eight years.

Fisher said the intense burning through her chest and shoulders was caused by a hiatial hernia, a condition brought on by heartburn and acid reflux.

"Tossing and turning, just fatigue and pain that became part of your daily life," said Fisher. "It was grinding away at me."

Like Fisher, nearly 20 percent of Americans live with acid reflux, according to the National Institutes of Health. But now one of the largest studies to look at the prevalence of acid reflux found that nearly 50 percent more people experience it today than a decade ago.

The study, published in the journal Gut, followed more than 30,000 people in Norway for 11 years. At the start of the study, nearly 12 percent of those surveyed said they experienced acid reflux symptoms at least one a week.

Researchers saw a 47 percent increase in those who reported weekly acid reflux symptoms by the end of the study.

Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid touches the lining of the esophagus and causes a burning sensation in the throat and chest, also known as heartburn. Consuming acidic or fried and fatty foods can bring it on.

While the study does not mention why acid reflux is on the rise, the researchers suggest that the increasing numbers may be linked to a rise in obesity rates.

"The interabdominal pressure that goes along with being obese allows for more reflux," said Dr. Gerard Mullin, associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, who was not involved in the Gut study. "It does seem like it's paralleling the prevalence of obesity."

Cigarette smoking and stress can also lead to acid reflux, Mullin said.

And the risk of developing acid reflux increases with age, especially for women. Women older than 60 reported feeling symptoms of acid reflux nearly 6 percent more than younger women, according to the study.

The researchers speculated that this may be because hormone replacement medications can raise a woman's risk of developing acid reflux.

Lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise, are often the first-line of treatment recommended by doctors to kick the reflux. Fisher lost 40 pounds, but the pain still persisted. She said acid reflux symptoms and subsequent lack of sleep made her tired and irritated. She also lost interest in activities she used to love.

"It obsesses you after a while," she said. "You don't enjoy food preparation, and everything just becomes 'blah.'"

Over-the-counter acid blocker medications are arguably the most popular method for keeping acid reflux at bay. Around 98 percent of those with severe acid reflux and about 31 percent of those with more mild cases reported taking medication, according to the study.

But long-term acid suppression can lead to thinning bones and gastrointestinal infections, said Mullin.

Long-term acid reflux that's left untreated can lead to esophageal cancer. While esophageal cancer rates have decreased over the past decade, the American Cancer Society estimates that 17,000 new cases of esophageal cancer were diagnosed in 2011, and nearly 15,000 Americans died of the disease.

Fisher underwent an incision-free invasive procedure called transoral incisionless fundoplication in which surgeons inserted a device through her mouth and into her stomach to create a few valve that could potentially hold back the acid.

The procedure is one of a few laparoscopic procedures to manage severe cases of acid reflux, Mullin said.

The procedure seemed to have worked for Fisher, who said she couldn't remember sleeping as well as she did now."The first thing I noticed immediately was I was dreaming," said Fisher. "I wake refreshed. I'm energized, I feel like getting out and doing things."