PERSONAL HEALTH; The Damage of Reflux


hao yun

In describing an instance of intense anger, you might say, as a figure
of speech, that bile rose in your throat. But for some people bile
does indeed rise, perhaps not as far as the throat but far enough to
cause digestive distress and serious damage to the lining of the
stomach and esophagus.
The symptoms are similar to heartburn, and many sufferers are told
they have gastroesophageal reflux disease, known as acid reflux. Yet
treatment with popular remedies for acid reflux, like the acid-
suppressing proton-pump inhibitors Prilosec, Prevacid and Nexium,
fails to work or gives only partial relief.
That's because acid reflux is, at most, only part of the problem. The
main culprit is bile reflux, a back-up of digestive fluid that is
supposed to remain in the small intestine, where it aids the digestion
of fats.
Bile is not acid. It's an alkaline fluid consisting of bile salts,
bile pigments, cholesterol and lecithin. It is produced by the liver,
stored in the gallbladder and released intermittently into the
duodenum, the upper part of the small intestine, when needed to digest
Misdiagnosis of bile reflux and failure to control it can result in
serious, sometimes life-threatening problems -- stomach ulcers that
bleed and Barrett's esophagus, a possible precursor to esophageal
cancer. Yet misdiagnosis is common, and even when the condition is
properly identified, doctors are often fatalistic about its
'Shadow Land'
Raymond Kozma of Staten Island said his wife, Lynne, 52, developed
bile reflux after surgery to remove her gallbladder and had been ''in
constant daily pain'' for the last two years.
''We have had doctors say everything from 'There's no such thing as
bile reflux' to 'There's bile reflux but we can't do anything about
it' to 'You just have to learn to live with the pain,' '' Mr. Kozma
wrote in an e-mail message. He urged me to write about the condition,
saying that ''thousands of suffering people live in a 'shadow land'
because of the denial and disinterest of the medical profession'' in
bile reflux.
Although the condition is certainly not unknown, there is a relative
lack of information on it in major medical journals read by
nonspecialists. Mr. Kozma said his wife had now developed Barrett's
esophagus and, instead of being offered treatment, was told to return
in three years to have another endoscopic look at her damaged
esophagus. ''What are we supposed to do? Wait and see if this develops
into cancer?''
No one with bile reflux needs to just wait for worse to come, although
the remedies are not as simple and well known as they are for acid
reflux. The condition usually can be managed with medications, but
severe cases may require surgery.
Symptoms and Causes
Both acid reflux and bile reflux may afflict the same person, which
can make diagnosis a challenge. But the stomach inflammation that
results from bile reflux often causes a burning or gnawing pain in the
upper abdomen that is not felt with acid reflux, according to experts
at the Mayo Clinic. Other symptoms of bile reflux may include frequent
heartburn (the main symptom of acid reflux), nausea, vomiting bile,
sometimes a cough or hoarseness and unintended weight loss.
A brief anatomy lesson makes the problem easier to understand. The
main organs of the digestive tract are separated by valvelike tissues
that, when functioning properly, allow food and digestive fluids to
pass in only one direction: down. Thus, as food and liquids pass
through the digestive process, they normally travel from the mouth to
the throat, then down the esophagus into the stomach, and finally into
the small intestine. The opening between the esophagus and stomach, a
muscular ring called the lower esophageal sphincter, is meant to keep
stomach acid from backing up. When it malfunctions, acid reflux --
chronic heartburn -- is the usual result.
Likewise, the pyloric valve, the muscular ring between the stomach and
small intestine, is supposed to open just enough to permit a fraction
of an ounce of liquefied food to pass into the small intestine, but
not enough to allow bile to back up into the stomach. When this valve
fails to close properly, refluxed bile can cause gastritis, an
irritation and inflammation of the stomach lining. Untreated, that can
result in a bleeding ulcer or even stomach cancer.
If the esophageal sphincter malfunctions at the same time, or there is
a build-up of pressure in the stomach, bile and acid can reach the
lower portion of the esophagus, inflaming the delicate lining of this
organ. If the problem persists, it can cause scarring that narrows the
esophagus, which may result in choking, or the cellular abnormality
called Barrett's esophagus, which can become precancerous and
eventually develop into cancer that is nearly always fatal.
Gastroenterologists have recently demonstrated that Barrett's
esophagus can often be effectively treated with radiofrequency
therapy, which might help patients like Mrs. Kozma.
Bile reflux can occur as a complication of certain surgeries, like the
gallbladder surgery Mrs. Kozma underwent. More often, though, damage
to the pyloric valve results from gastric surgery -- total removal of
the stomach or the gastric bypass operation used to treat morbid
Occasionally, the pyloric valve is obstructed by a peptic ulcer, for
example, or scar tissue, which prevents the valve from opening enough
to permit quick transport of stomach contents into the intestine. That
causes pressure to build up in the stomach, pushing both acid and bile
into the esophagus.
Diagnosis and Treatment
The main diagnostic tests include an endoscopic examination of the
esophagus and stomach to check for inflammation or ulceration; a test
to check for acid in the esophagus (this would be negative if bile
reflux is the only problem), and a test to determine if gas or liquids
reflux into the esophagus.
A medication called ursodeoxycholic acid can be prescribed to promote
the flow of bile and reduce the symptoms and pain of bile reflux.
Other drugs might be used to speed the rate at which food leaves the
Surgery is a treatment of last resort, used if nothing else reduces
severe symptoms of bile reflux or when the esophagus develops
precancerous changes. The most common operation, called Roux-en-Y
surgery, involves creation of a new connection to the small intestine
to keep bile away from the stomach.
If acid reflux is also a problem, treatment with a proton-pump
inhibitor should help, as should nonmedical remedies including weight
loss; limiting high-fat foods and alcohol; avoiding carbonated and
acidic beverages, spicy foods, onions, vinegar, chocolate and mint;
eating small meals; practicing stress-reducing techniques like
meditation or exercise; not eating within two to three hours of
bedtime; and sleeping with the upper body and head elevated.