More and more people are experiencing acid reflux, according to public health experts. Over the past ten years, the number of people who report experiencing the condition has risen by almost 50 percent. Acid reflux is one of the most common internet health searches. This increase appears to affect men and women of all ages, though most sufferers are women in their 60s and the strongest effect was seen in middle-aged people. Reflux occurs when the stomach acids travel up the esophagus due to a fault in the valve that normally prevents this. It can cause discomfort—heartburn—and over time can lead to esophageal cancer.
One possible reason suggested for the rise in acid reflux is the increase in obesity in recent years. Obesity is a significant risk factor for acid reflux because of the strain it puts on the valve keeping stomach acid in place. The pressure on the stomach can make it more difficult for the valve to stay closed. Asthma, diabetes and smoking can also cause the risk of reflux to be higher. Some medications have a side effect of worsening reflux as well; these include anticholinergics prescribed for irritable bowel syndrome, certain hypertension and heart disease medications, opioid painkillers such as codeine and hydrocodone and acetaminophen, the hormone progesterone, and benzodiazepine sedatives.
Even non-opiate pain relievers can lead to heartburn, though without necessarily triggering reflux, such as aspirin and ibuprofen. Other medications associated with heartburn include bisphosphonates for osteoporosis, antibiotics, and iron and potassium supplements. These medications irritate the lining of the stomach, causing the heartburn sensation. In addition, antibiotics, in addition to the harmful microbes they are intended to target, often work equally well on the gut microflora that help in digestion, leading to digestive problems such as heartburn.
Antacids, which, as the name suggests, neutralize the acid in the stomach, can provide spot relief for heartburn. However, this acid is necessary for digestion, and so overuse of these medications can be harmful. Medications called proton pump inhibitors combine reducing the amount of acid in the stomach with healing the esophagus. A new surgical approach involves placing a ring of magnetic beads around the esophagus to help keep the acid in place. This allows the esophagus to heal from acid damage and prevents further damage without interfering with digestion.