Gastroesophageal acid reflux disease, also known as GERD, is a relatively common disease that affects millions of Americans every year, most of them over the age of 40. Most of the time it lets you know you have a problem by hitting you hard with heartburn, that burning sensation that rises out of your stomach and can reach up to your neck.
But GERD doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with the pain of heartburn, and the acid it releases can sometimes reach your mouth without you realizing it. That’s how dentists can sometimes be the first medical professionals to realize you have acid reflux.
How GERD Works
Your stomach uses the potent hydrochloric acid to break down food into simple molecules your intestines can absorb. But hydrochloric acid is dangerous, so your stomach has a thick mucus lining that’s constantly growing to keep ahead of the acid. You also have a pair of tough sphincters that cut off the stomach from the esophagus and the small intestine when food isn’t passing through.
However, with time and a few bad habits, the esophageal sphincter can weaken to the point that acid can move up the pipe. Your small intestine has protections against acid since that’s the way things are supposed to go, but hydrochloric acid can damage your esophagus and cause heartburn. Feeling a little heartburn on the rare occasion is nothing to worry about, but if you feel it regularly after eating certain foods or several times each week no matter what, that’s a good sign you have GERD.
How GERD Affects Teeth
It’s common knowledge that acids can damage your teeth. Enamel is made of crystalized calcium and phosphorus, and it’s easier to dissolve in an acid. This includes any acid that reaches your mouth thanks to GERD.
Acid has a sour taste that’s hard to miss, and between the heartburn and noticing a sour taste that has nothing to do with food, it’s normally hard to miss GERD when it hits. But there is one way: GERD can happen when you’re asleep since your esophagus is horizontal instead of vertical, and the pain of heartburn might not be enough to wake you up.
If that’s the case, your dentist may be the first person to realize you have GERD by spotting enamel wear that affects the back molars the hardest. Fortunately, there are many ways to reduce the problems caused by GERD, and dentists can repair or replace worn enamel. But the first step is to diagnose the problem, and regular visits to your dentist give you more chances to find out if you have acid reflux.