Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease Clinical Presentation

Updated: Nov 27, 2023
  • Author: Marco G Patti, MD; Chief Editor: BS Anand, MD  more...
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Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is associated with a set of typical (esophageal) symptoms, including heartburn, regurgitation, and dysphagia. (However, a diagnosis of GERD based on the presence of typical symptoms is correct in only 70% of patients.) In addition to these typical symptoms, abnormal reflux can cause atypical (extraesophageal) symptoms, such as coughing, chest pain, and wheezing.

The American College of Gastroenterology (ACG) published updated guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of GERD in 2005. According to the guidelines, for patients with symptoms and history consistent with uncomplicated GERD, the diagnosis of GERD may be assumed and empirical therapy begun. Patients who show signs of GERD complications or other illness or who do not respond to therapy should be considered for further diagnostic testing. [7]

A history of nausea, vomiting, or regurgitation should alert the physician to evaluate for delayed gastric emptying.

Patients with GERD may also experience significant complications associated with the disease, such as esophagitis, stricture, and Barrett esophagus. Approximately 50% of patients with gastric reflux develop esophagitis.


Physical Examination

Typical esophageal symptoms

Heartburn is the most common typical symptom of GERD. It is felt as a retrosternal sensation of burning or discomfort that usually occurs after eating or when lying supine or bending over.

Regurgitation is an effortless return of gastric and/or esophageal contents into the pharynx. Regurgitation can induce respiratory complications if gastric contents spill into the tracheobronchial tree.

Dysphagia occurs in approximately one third of patients. Patients with dysphagia experience a sensation that food is stuck, particularly in the retrosternal area. Dysphagia can be an advanced symptom and can be due to a primary underlying esophageal motility disorder, a motility disorder secondary to esophagitis, or stricture formation.

Atypical extraesophageal symptoms

Coughing and/or wheezing are respiratory symptoms resulting from the aspiration of gastric contents into the tracheobronchial tree or from the vagal reflex arc producing bronchoconstriction. Approximately 50% of patients who have GERD-induced asthma do not experience heartburn.

Hoarseness results from irritation of the vocal cords by the gastric refluxate and is often experienced by patients in the morning.

Reflux is the most common cause of noncardiac chest pain, accounting for approximately 50% of cases. Patients can present to the emergency department with pain resembling a myocardial infarction. Reflux should be ruled out (using esophageal manometry and 24-hour pH testing if necessary) once a cardiac cause for the chest pain has been excluded. Alternatively, a therapeutic trial of a high-dose proton pump inhibitor (PPI) can be tried.

Additional atypical symptoms from abnormal reflux include damage to the lungs (eg, pneumonia, asthma, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis), vocal cords (eg, laryngitis, cancer), ear (eg, otitis media), and teeth (eg, enamel decay).