President Obama visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center this week because of a persistent sore throat. It has been reported in the press that evaluation revealed inflammation in the back portion of his throat and the president was diagnosed with Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
GERD is very common and is most frequently recognized as heartburn or acid indigestion. When you experience heartburn, you’ll feel a burning-type pain in the lower part of your mid-chest, behind the breastbone, and in the mid-abdomen. Sometimes, however, GERD does not cause heartburn; GERD may cause a dry cough, asthma symptoms, a sore throat, trouble swallowing, and hoarseness or a change in the character of your voice.
Dr. Ronny L. Jackson, Obama’s physician, released the following statement:
“This morning, an ear, nose and throat specialist from Fort Belvoir Medical Center conducted a fiber optic exam, under my supervision, of the President’s throat based on symptoms of sore throat over the past couple weeks. The exam revealed soft tissue swelling in the posterior throat and I, in consultation with the specialist, determined that further evaluation with a routine CT scan was prudent.
“The CT scan was conducted this afternoon purely as a matter of convenience for the President’s schedule. The CT scan was normal. The President’s symptoms are consistent with soft tissue inflammation related to acid reflux and will be treated accordingly.”
In President Obama’s case the key symptom of GERD was a persistent sore throat. GERD is the more-serious form of gastroesophageal reflux (GER), a common condition where contents of the stomach—digestive juices, or acids—rise up into the esophagus due the opening or incomplete closure of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The LES is the muscle that keeps the contents of the stomach out of the esophagus and airway. When GER persists and occurs more than twice a week, it is considered GERD.
Although the causes of GERD and subsequently heartburn aren’t clear for every individual, there are several common factors among those affected. One factor is that the LES relaxes when the esophagus is active and allows stomach acids to rise up into the esophagus and airway, causing heartburn. Another cause may be a hiatal hernia, an abnormality where part of the stomach and the LES move above the diaphragm; because the diaphragm helps the LES keep acid from rising up, the interference of a hiatal hernia can allow for GERD and heartburn.
GERD and accompanying heartburn not only cause discomfort but, when not properly treated, can lead to serious health problems. Stomach acid that rises up into the esophagus, or is refluxed, can cause inflammation in the esophagus, which can lead to bleeding or ulcers (known as esophagitis). Refluxed stomach acid can also scar the esophagus, causing strictures (narrowing) that interfere with swallowing. Barrett’s esophagus is also a risk of untreated GERD—this condition is marked by abnormal cells in the esophageal lining, which can lead to esophageal cancer.