There are a number of ways to diagnose Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), more commonly “acid reflux.” One of the most popular methods is called Esophageal pH monitoring. This test is essentially a measure of the acidity in the contents of a patient’s esophagus.
Before going into the specifics of Esophageal pH monitoring, let’s look at how GERD affects the body.
What is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)?
The word gastroesophageal refers to the stomach and the esophagus, and reflux means return or backflow. So, gastroesophageal reflux is when contents of the stomach come back up into the esophagus.
The lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is a group of muscles at the bottom of the esophagus that separates the esophagus from the stomach. In most people, the LES opens to allow food to pass, and then closes to prevent food and acid from returning up the esophagus. However, patients with GERD have a weak or malfunctioning LES, and this causes the acidic contents of the stomach to get by and pass up into the esophagus.
It isn’t necessarily that patients with GERD have too much acid; it is that the normal mechanism that keeps acid in the stomach is malfunctioning. Stomach acid is actually a good and necessary part of digestion. Stomach acid is how you can effectively break down your food and obtain valuable nutrients.
What is Esophageal pH Monitoring?
If you can remember back to your high school chemistry class, the pH system is a numeric scale that is used to specify the acidity or basicity of a solution. The pH scale goes from 0 to 14, and it measures the presence of hydrogen ions. The more hydrogen ions a solution has, the more acidic it is. The middle of scale, 7, is neither acidic nor basic and is usually represented by pure water. Acids have a pH of less than 7, and bases have a pH of greater than 7.
When a gastrointestinal specialist monitors your esophageal pH, he/she is monitoring the acidity of your esophagus. Patients with GERD have stomach acid in their esophagus, and this will show up on the test. According to Dr. Rolando Sanchez, “This test can also be performed further down into the stomach. That way a doctor can see how certain medications or procedures are affecting acid production.”
The test is performed by passing a thin plastic catheter through one nostril and down the back of the throat into the esophagus. The catheter has a sensor on the end of it that measures pH levels. The sensor is placed just above the LES in the esophagus, and from there it can record each instance of reflux. The catheter is connected to a device that registers each reflux.
The catheter typically stays in place for a full day, so the physician can see to what extent and how often a patient is having acid reflux. Patients are instructed to go about their usual day-to-day activities while the test is in progress. They can eat, sleep, and work, and are encouraged to record all of their activities. That way, the doctor can compare the daily activities of the patient with acidic activity in their esophagus.
Once a patient is diagnosed with GERD, and the reflux is monitored by esophageal pH, then a physician can start to treat the condition. In some cases, patients will be put on over the counter or prescription medications, and in other cases patients will elect to have certain surgeries that can stop the condition altogether.
If you are struggling with the symptoms of GERD in the Tampa Bay area, then you can visit the Tampa Bay Reflux Center and speak to a specialized physician. The highly trained staff there can help you decide how to treat and manage your acid reflux.