Your stomach is filled with acid. Its purpose is to help digest the food you eat. Believe it or not, this acid is the same acidity as battery acid. Your stomach is built to handle the acid it produces. However, your esophagus isn’t. So when acid backs up into your esophagus, it can cause the burning sensation known as heartburn.
Almost everyone has occasional heartburn. But if these symptoms occur two or more days a week for at least three months, you may have GERD, or acid reflux disease. Acid reflux occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter (the valve separating the esophagus and stomach) does not close properly, allowing acid to back up into the esophagus.
I do not have reflux constantly, but when I do, it is pretty painful. It seems to come in waves that last a few weeks to a few months, and then goes away for a period of time. There are several triggers that seem to make things worse. General triggers include: certain foods or drinks (especially alcohol), smoking, being overweight, eating too much, bending over after eating, and lying down less than 3 hours after meals. Foods that really seem to tear me up are citrus fruits and tomato sauce.
Things have been a bit better this year as I have lost some weight, avoided trigger foods, and made efforts to avoid late night snacking. Unfortunately lack of sleep and stress seem to crank up the pain for me as well, and these factors have increased of late.
Over time the acid can damage your esophagus and lead to several problems. In the spirit of this year's theme of 'taking care of things that have been ignored', I went to see my doctor about it. After listening to my symptoms, he referred me to a specialist. The specialist recommended we do some testing to find out my current condition, and then decide on a course of action going forward. If lifestyle changes are not sufficient to reduce GERD symptoms, other options include pills and surgery. I am of course hopeful that changes in my behavior will be enough, but at this point I am primarily concerned with finding out what kind of damage might have been done already.
There will be a total of four tests, and the first one was yesterday. I visited the radiology department and stepped on to an X-ray machine. The machine rotated from the horizontal bed to a standing position, and the X-ray was on a track that moved along your body from head to feet. They first had me swallow some crystals that they equated to Pop Rocks*. This was supposed to create some gas and expand the esophagus. No burping please.
With the esophagus properly inflated, they had me drink different thicknesses of barium solution while I was in various standing and prone positions. They shot film(?) as the lit-up barium passed through. Sometimes the camera was stationary as I swallowed several mouthfuls, and other times it moved to follow the barium down. They had a monitor that we both could look at, and it was pretty cool to watch. The last test was with some ground beef soaked in barium to add a little extra grit. Swallowing all that barium was in no way pleasant, but overall the test wasn't too bad.
The specialist will of course interpret the results later, but from what the tech saw, nothing horribly wrong showed up on the monitor. I have three more tests next week that will give a more detailed picture. The tests will include sending a probe down the esophagus, as well as planting a temporary sensor to take pH readings. I will be sedated for this round of tests, so no cool video, unless they send my home with a souvenir DVD.
*Growing up, there was an urban legend that if you swallowed Pop Rocks without letting them react in your mouth, that the resulting gas could cause your stomach to explode. The myth went further to say that the kid that played "Mikey" in the Life cereal commercials died this way. A survey taker actually called our house when I was a kid to ask what rumors I had heard about Pop Rocks. Exploding kidneys I said. Today of course we have Mentos and Diet Coke, but the exploding stomach was proven to be an urban legend by the Mythbusters.