THURSDAY, Jan. 5 (HealthDay News) -- Heartburn and acid reflux strike many people as an annoying and painful but ultimately harmless problem -- a result of overindulgence and gluttony that must be endured, much like a hangover after a night of drinking.
But frequent bouts of heartburn and reflux constitute a real medical condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, and GERD is on the rise worldwide.
"The overall prevalence is increasing over the past decades," said Dr. Ronnie Fass, a medical advisory board member for the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders who's also a professor of medicine at the University of Arizona and chief of gastroenterology at the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System.
The increase has occurred "not only in the United States, but in Asian countries, where GERD was unheard of," Fass said. "But we are the trailblazers. We are leading the world."
If left untreated, GERD can lead to bleeding or ulcers in the esophagus, a buildup of scar tissue that makes swallowing difficult and, in extreme cases, esophageal cancer, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
"People consider heartburn part of the eating experience," Fass said. "They have to understand the presence of heartburn denotes a real medical problem."
Frequent reflux or heartburn are apparently a regular occurrence for Americans. "We believe up to 20 percent of the population experiences symptoms once a week, and 7 percent have daily symptoms," he said.
Heartburn and acid reflux occur when acidic digestive juices from the stomach get past a ring of muscle known as the lower esophageal sphincter, which acts as a valve separating the stomach from the esophagus.
People experience heartburn when the digestive juices eat away at the lining of the esophagus. Sometimes the acid refluxes all the way up through the
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