Treatment options for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) include lifestyle alterations, medications, and surgical interventions.

GERD is a chronic condition in which stomach acid comes back up into a person’s esophagus, or food pipe. It can cause uncomfortable symptoms, like heartburn and regurgitation.

In this article, we will explore the different treatments for GERD, including the potential side effects, benefits, and risks of each treatment, as well as when to contact a doctor about GERD.

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One of the first interventions that doctors suggest to treat GERD is making lifestyle modifications. These may include:

Side effects and risks

Many lifestyle modifications, like elevating the head during sleep and not eating heavy meals before bedtime, are likely to be safe for a person to try without medical guidance.

However, a person should consider speaking with a doctor if they think they need to lose weight to maintain a moderate weight. A healthcare professional can offer advice about losing weight safely and effectively.

Doctors can also provide support for people who want to quit smoking.

According to a 2021 review of studies, eating foods containing high amounts of added sugars and saturated fats is associated with a risk of developing GERD. So, choosing foods low in sugar and fats may help a person avoid triggering GERD symptoms.

Another 2021 review of research suggests that the following foods and drinks may trigger GERD symptoms:

As a result, a person with GERD may consider limiting the amount of these foods and drinks they include in their diet.

Side effects and risks

Some people may find that avoiding certain foods considerably restricts their diet.

A person should speak with a healthcare professional before making any significant changes to their diet. A doctor can help someone identify potential trigger foods and suggest alternatives to replace them with.

Healthcare professionals can also help people make sure they are eating a balanced diet that provides them with essential nutrients, while also limiting foods that trigger GERD symptoms.

Learn more about which foods to eat and avoid with GERD.

People can buy many GERD medications over-the-counter (OTC). If symptoms persist, a doctor may prescribe medications.

Some of these medications may include:

  • Antacids: These medications are available OTC and help relieve mild heartburn and other mild symptoms of GERD. However, doctors generally advise against using antacids daily or for severe symptoms.
  • Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs): These medications lower the amount of acid the stomach produces. PPIs may help heal the damage to the lining of the esophagus that GERD causes. PPIs are available OTC, or a doctor may prescribe them.
  • H2 blockers: These medications also reduce stomach acid production. H2 blockers can also help heal the esophageal lining, but they may be less effective than PPIs.

Side effects and risks

All medications carry a risk of side effects, and some may interact with other medications. A person should speak with a healthcare professional about potential risks before taking any medications.

For example, antacids can potentially have side effects, including constipation and diarrhea. Long-term use of antacids or taking too many of them can inhibit the absorption of nutrients and vitamins, which stomach acid helps the body digest and use.

Additionally, PPIs may cause side effects including diarrhea, stomach issues, and headaches. Research into the effects of taking PPIs long term or at high dosages remains ongoing.

If lifestyle changes and medication do not help, doctors may recommend surgical options, including:

  • Fundoplication: With fundoplication, a surgeon sews the top of the stomach around the end of the esophagus to add pressure to the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), preventing the stomach contents from coming up into the esophagus.
  • Bariatric surgery: If someone has GERD and obesity, doctors may recommend bariatric surgery, also referred to as weight-loss surgery. It may help reduce a person’s GERD symptoms as well as their body weight.
  • Endoscopy: During an endoscopy, a surgeon inserts a small, flexible tube with a light and camera through a person’s mouth into their esophagus. They may use the tube to help them sew the top of the stomach around the LES or to deliver radiofrequency energy to the sphincter.

Side effects and risks

Complications of GERD surgery may include:

  • difficulty swallowing, due to the stomach wrapping around the LES too tightly
  • the stomach no longer supporting the valve that connects it to the esophagus, due to esophageal movement
  • recurrent heartburn
  • abdominal bloating and gas

First-line treatments for GERD include diet and lifestyle alterations and OTC and prescription medications.

Less commonly, doctors may recommend surgery if medications and lifestyle changes are not effective in relieving a person’s symptoms.

Anyone who thinks they may have GERD should speak with a doctor who can recommend which treatments may work best for them. People should also contact a healthcare professional if their symptoms worsen or if their current treatments are not helping.