GERD and back pain: Can GERD cause back pain?

If you have received a diagnosis for GERD and are wondering why you often experience back pain, your health condition may be the reason.

A massage therapist massaging a patient with back pain

Key takeaways

  • One of the primary symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is heartburn, which can cause chest and back pain.
  • Heartburn often presents with pain in the chest, but the pain sometimes radiates to other parts of the body, like the back, neck, and arms.
  • A change in lifestyle and diet may help manage GERD. However, it is best to speak with a doctor about the best treatment and management options. 

GERD is a common digestive system condition that affects an estimated 20% of people in the United States and an estimated 783.95 people worldwide as of 2019.

GERD can cause many discomforting symptoms, including nausea, heartburn, and pain while swallowing. It may also cause back pain in some people who experience chest pain as one of the symptoms of the condition.

What is GERD?

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also called acid reflux, is a chronic disorder in which stomach acid constantly flows back into the tube that transports food from the mouth down to the stomach (esophagus).

GERD is often caused by a weak lower esophageal sphincter (LES). LES is a ring of muscle located on the lower part of the esophagus, close to the stomach, that is meant to close up after food enters the stomach.

For people with GERD, the LES may be loose, which makes it easy for stomach contents, including acid, to flow back into the esophagus. GERD usually lasts for a long time and is usually severe. If not treated, it may lead to serious complications over time.

Even though the terms “GERD” and “acid reflux” are often used interchangeably, they don’t exactly mean the same. Many people experience reflux acid, including babies and children, at some point in life. It only becomes a problem and could lead to GERD when it becomes more frequent and extends through weeks and months. GERD is a severe form of acid reflux disease.

People with GERD may experience symptoms like:

  • Heartburn (A burn sensation in the chest area)
  • Chest pain
  • Back pain
  • Trouble sleeping (e.g., sleep apnea)
  • Chronic cough
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Bad breath
  • A lump sensation in the throat
  • Asthma symptoms

Most of these symptoms are usually experienced after eating food such as fried foods, fatty foods, chocolate, citrus juice and fruits, tomato products, and foods containing caffeine.

GERD may cause back pain in people with the condition who experience heartburn or chest pain. This is because the extensive network of nerves that connect muscles and other body tissues would cause pain from the chest area to radiate to the back and other upper body areas.

Back pain is not a common symptom of GERD. But, even though not everyone with GERD experiences back pain, there is still a link between the two. 

Factors that can trigger back pain in people with GERD

Factors that can trigger back pain in people with GERD include:

  • Food: Eating foods like fried or greasy foods can trigger GERD symptoms, such as chest pain. Pain from the chest may also radiate to the back, causing back pain or great discomfort.  
  • Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs): NSAIDs such as Naproxen and  Ibuprofen are common pain relief medications. While these medications can successfully relieve pain, they will consequently irritate the walls of the stomach, making it sensitive to gastric acid. This also increases the risk of developing heartburn and GERD, which can both cause back pain.
  • Stress: Stress increases the risk of developing GERD with accompanying back pain. When stressed, people can become more sensitive to gastric acid. Also, emotional stress may increase stomach acid production, worsening GERD.

How GERD affects daily living

The major negative effects of this disease on a patient are frequent heartburn. Heartburn often causes a constant painful sensation around the chest, which can reduce a person’s standard of living, making them uncomfortable, interfering with their sleep, and disturbing their work productivity.

According to endoscopic findings, every GERD patient either has a non-erosive reflux disorder (NERD) or erosive esophagitis (EE).

It’s important to be on the lookout for the symptoms of GERD to prevent it from escalating, which may lead to severe health complications such as inflammation of the esophagus or esophagitis. GERD can increase the risk of an uncommon disorder known as Barret’s esophagus, which may lead to cancer.

Once a patient is confirmed to have GERD, it might become a long-term condition requiring adequate management. The best way to manage GERD is to identify various causes of the symptoms and try to control or avoid any circumstances that will promote the disease.

Lifestyle habits for managing GERD

There are medications for treating GERD that a doctor can prescribe you. However, some dietary and lifestyle adjustments can help manage the condition. 

  • Avoid foods that cause heartburn. Some foods are known to enhance gastric pressure and relax the esophageal muscles. Coffee, carbonated drinks, fried foods, acidic fruit juices, and mints may not be the best foods to consume if you have GERD.
  • Do not eat immediately before bedtime. Another great tip for managing GERD is to allow the food you have eaten, especially at night, to digest before going to bed. This makes you more comfortable while asleep. The esophagus relaxes once you lie down, and because the food you ate may not have been digested, it may get pushed back into the esophagus, leading to acid reflux.
  • Eat small meals more often. Eating smaller quantities of the meal more often throughout the day will minimize gastric pressure on the esophagus. Also, taking a spoonful of food at a time instead of rushing may help.
  • Make use of antacids. Antacids are drugs that help to reduce or stop the pain caused by acid in the stomach. These drugs give you relief from heartburn and work for about 12 hours.
  • Try to relax. Stress and anxiety may have some connection with GERD, and creating time to rest has been proven to minimize some factors that could lead to the disease.

When to speak to a doctor for GERD

People with GERD are advised to seek immediate medical attention the moment they begin to experience unusual or alarming symptoms that are life-threatening or could lead to serious complications.

The following signs are an indication that you need to speak to a doctor as soon as possible:

  • A sudden weight loss
  • Difficulties with swallowing food or liquid
  • Choking while eating
  • Vomiting blood or substance that looks like coffee
  • Black or red stools

It is also necessary to contact your doctor when you begin to experience frequent or severe GERD symptoms. Also, if you take non-prescription medication for two weeks without signs of recovery, it indicates that you need to see your doctor.

Both changes in habits and medication can also help to eliminate GERD. Seeing a doctor would also help to know the best medication meant for you. Also, keeping a record of the food you consume, when, and how you feel after eating can help you handle the symptoms better and provide useful information to your doctor on what to administer to make you feel better.

Treatment for GERD back pain

Some foods may help relieve GERD symptoms or prevent them from worsening, e.g., bananas, yogurt, oatmeal, green vegetables, root vegetables, melons, and foods that contain lots of water.

Your doctor may also prescribe common medications to treat back pain and other GERD symptoms, including:

  • Pain relievers: These are medications that help relieve pain
  • Antacid – a medicine that reduces or prevents the pain caused by too much acid in the stomach
  • Histamine blockers – drugs that reduce acid production in the stomach
  • Prokinetic agents – help the GI tract muscles to contract and relax when necessary

Also, if you receive a diagnosis for another health condition, it will be safer to tell your doctor you have GERD, so they can prescribe for you medications that will not affect the stomach lining. This will help your healing process.