Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) (cont.)

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How is GERD diagnosed and evaluated?

There are a variety of procedures, tests, and evaluation of symptoms (for example, heartburn) to diagnose and evaluate patients with GERD.

Symptoms and procedures to diagnose GERD

Symptoms and response to treatment (therapeutic trial)

The usual way that GERD is diagnosed - or at least suspected - is by its characteristic symptom, heartburn. Heartburn is most frequently described as a sub-sternal (under the middle of the chest) burning that occurs after meals and often worsens when lying down. To confirm the diagnosis, physicians often treat patients with medications to suppress the production of acid by the stomach. If the heartburn then is diminished to a large extent, the diagnosis of GERD is considered confirmed. This approach of making a diagnosis on the basis of a response of the symptoms to treatment is commonly called a therapeutic trial.

There are problems with this approach, however, primarily because it does not include diagnostic tests. For instance, patients who have conditions that can mimic GERD, specifically duodenal or gastric (stomach) ulcers, also can actually respond to such treatment. In this situation, if the physician assumes that the problem is GERD, he or she will not look for the cause of the ulcer disease. For example, a type of infection called Helicobacter pylori, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (for example, ibuprofen), can also cause ulcers and these conditions would be treated differently from GERD.

Moreover, as with any treatment, there is perhaps a 20% placebo effect, which means that 20% of patients will respond to a placebo (inactive) pill or, indeed, to any treatment. This means that 20% of patients who have causes of their symptoms other than GERD (or ulcers) will have a decrease in their symptoms after receiving the treatment for GERD. Thus, on the basis of their response to treatment (the therapeutic trial), these patients then will continue to be treated for GERD, even though they do not have GERD. What's more, the true cause of their symptoms will not be pursued.

Endoscopy

Upper gastrointestinal endoscopy (also known as esophago-gastro-duodenoscopy or EGD) is a common way of diagnosing GERD. EGD is a procedure in which a tube containing an optical system for visualization is swallowed. As the tube progresses down the gastrointestinal tract, the lining of the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum can be examined.

The esophagus of most patients with symptoms of reflux looks normal. Therefore, in most patients, endoscopy will not help in the diagnosis of GERD. However, sometimes the lining of the esophagus appears inflamed (esophagitis). Moreover, if erosions (superficial breaks in the esophageal lining) or ulcers (deeper breaks in the lining) are seen, a diagnosis of GERD can be made confidently. Endoscopy will also identify several of the complications of GERD, specifically, ulcers, strictures, and Barrett's esophagus. Biopsies also may be obtained.

Finally, other common problems that may be causing GERD like symptoms can be diagnosed (for example ulcers, inflammation, or cancers of the stomach or duodenum) with EGD.

Biopsies

Biopsies of the esophagus that are obtained through the endoscope are not considered very useful for diagnosing GERD. They are useful, however, in diagnosing cancers or causes of esophageal inflammation other than acid reflux, particularly infections. Moreover, biopsies are the only means of diagnosing the cellular changes of Barrett's esophagus. More recently, it has been suggested that even in patients with GERD whose esophagi appear normal to the eye, biopsies will show widening of the spaces between the lining cells, possibly an indication of damage. It is too early to conclude, however, that seeing widening is specific enough to be confidently that GERD is present.

X-rays

Before the introduction of endoscopy, an X-ray of the esophagus (called an esophagram) was the only means of diagnosing GERD. Patients swallowed barium (contrast material), and X-rays of the barium-filled esophagus were then taken. The problem with the esophagram was that it was an insensitive test for diagnosing GERD. That is, it failed to find signs of GERD in many patients who had GERD because the patients had little or no damage to the lining of the esophagus. The X-rays were able to show only the infrequent complications of GERD, for example, ulcers and strictures. X-rays have been abandoned as a means of diagnosing GERD, although they still can be useful along with endoscopy in the evaluation of complications.

Examination of the throat and larynx

When GERD affects the throat or larynx and causes symptoms of cough, hoarseness, or sore throat, patients often visit an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist. The ENT specialist frequently finds signs of inflammation of the throat or larynx. Although diseases of the throat or larynx usually are the cause of the inflammation, sometimes GERD can be the cause. Accordingly, ENT specialists often try acid-suppressing treatment to confirm the diagnosis of GERD. This approach, however, has the same problems as discussed above, that result from using the response to treatment to confirm GERD.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/11/2013

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GERD - Proton Pump Inhibitors Question: If your GERD symptoms were not relieved by treatment with proton pump inhibitors, did you find other effective treatments?
GERD - Diet Question: What diet and lifestyle changes have you made to improve your GERD and heartburn?
GERD - Causes Question: Do you know what caused your GERD? Please discuss your experience with GERD.
GERD - Complications Question: Did you experience any complications with your GERD? What were they?
GERD - Diagnosis Question: How did your doctors arrive at a diagnosis of GERD?
GERD - Treatment Question: What types of treatment or medication have you received for GERD? What's worked and what hasn't?