Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) currently affects around 40% of the adult population globally to some extent, GERD has been also linked to an increased risk of cancer of the larynx and oesophagus. Given the high numbers of people afflicted by the illness and the possible tumorous developments associated with it, heartburn might pose even more risks during the pandemic. It has been suggested that GERD might increase one’s risk of dying from COVID-19. Since the stomach acid alters the oesophageal tissue, the oesophageal cells might become more susceptible to viral infections, COVID-19 included.
According to Dr Linas Venclauskas, a bariatric surgeon at Nordbariatric Clinic, a leading bariatric surgery centre located in Kaunas, Lithuania, despite GERD not being directly life-threatening, it can significantly impair a person’s quality of life, at the same time causing oesophageal erosions and peptic esophagitis (inflammation of the oesophagus).
“Regurgitation, chest pains, problems swallowing and sore throat - all of these symptoms might possibly indicate GERD. If not treated, it may lead to Barrett’s oesophagus, which is a precancerous disease affecting the lining of the oesophagus,” explained Venclauskas. “Persistent peptic esophagitis may cause scarring in the oesophagus, and therefore food has difficulties getting into the stomach. For this reason, people complain of constant chest pains or discomfort in the chest region and epigastric area when eating.”
He indicated that diet and regimen play an important role in preventing heartburn in the first place.
“People with GERD should avoid spicy and fatty foods, coffee, chocolate, alcohol, smoking, and overeating. They should also abstain from exercising, especially bending or lying down, right after the meal. Instead, it is recommended to go for a low-intensity walk for 30 minutes,” he added. “These measures are not always enough and people with GERD should also take medications regularly to reduce acidity. However, if symptoms persist even after preventive measures, a person should consider surgical treatment of GERD.”
This is exactly what happened to Amanda Newton, a 57-year-old resident from the UK. After sudden symptoms of severe chest pains in 2016, Amanda underwent extensive testing and was diagnosed with heartburn and hiatus hernia. Although she was put on daily medication that would marginally relieve the symptoms and followed a strict diet, the chest pains did not subside and reflux would sometimes aspirate into her lungs, causing a near-choking condition.
Since Amanda also had difficulties sleeping as she always had to stay in an upright position, the disease rapidly disturbed her quality of life and work. She started suffering from insomnia, an inability to bend down and fear of choking. Amanda was not offered surgery in the UK as her doctors preferred medications over intervention. She had several failed attempts to request surgery, yet the consultants advised her to wait for six months, which turned into six years.
“My social life became virtually non-existent, those six years were complete utter hell. I was using so many medications, but they did not take my symptoms away. I could not eat, lost weight, and felt very unhappy in life,” said Amanda.
Feeling discouraged by prior consultations, she came across Nordbariatric Clinic online in 2021 and found out they did the surgery she was looking for - a hiatus hernia repair. Although Amanda was apprehensive to travel to Lithuania for surgery at first, the persistent discomfort finally prompted her to contact the Clinic in May 2021. The medical staff was quick to address her concerns regarding the procedure and provide all the details about the traveling. Therefore, Amanda filled out a questionary and sent her medical records to the Clinic for review, and was approved for hiatus hernia surgery in July 2021.
“Prior to the procedure, I spoke with the surgeon Almantas Maleckas and discussed the surgery and the options. I felt very confident that he wanted to speak and actually explain everything without rushing,” remembered Amanda. “He took the time to listen to my concerns and explained the nature and equipment of the intervention.”
Amanda returned back to the UK five days after a successful repair of hiatus hernia, and went back to work after four weeks. According to her, she can now eat a range of products without heartburn and can finally lie down when sleeping.
“It can take up to a year to fully heal, so I am careful with what I eat. Otherwise, I haven’t taken previous medications since the surgery. My life is completely normal finally, and I am so relieved to have gotten the procedure, which made me a much happier person,” concluded Amanda. “My only regret is not doing the surgery sooner.”