Truckers should avoid reflux before it becomes something worse

| 9/13/2004

We’ve all heard the ads on TV and radio: If you have heartburn, and especially if you have it on a regular basis, you could have acid reflux disease.

But what many don’t know is that if you do have acid reflux and you don’t do anything about it, you could be headed for a far more serious illness.

According to the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, long-term acid irritation can increase your risk of esophageal cancer.

“Tissues at the bottom of the esophagus can become irritated if stomach acid frequently backs up into the esophagus,” according to the institute’s Web site. “Over time, cells in the irritated part of the esophagus may change and begin to resemble the cells that line the stomach.”

That condition is known as Barrett's esophagus, a premalignant condition that may develop into adenocarcinoma, a form of esophageal cancer. And like all cancers, it is to be taken seriously.

At one time, reflux was thought to be an “old man’s disease,” one that you would worry about late in life. Increasingly, however, more and more younger men – and women – are being diagnosed with reflux.

Few figures exist on how many truckers have reflux problems, although some old timers say it is common. However, John Seibert of the OOIDA Foundation points out that reflux is linked to the body-mass index, which measures how heavy a person is in relation to their height. The heavier a person is, the more likely they are to have reflux.

On average, most of the U.S. population statistically sits at the line between normal weight and overweight. Truckers, on average, sit at the line between overweight and obese.

Some people don’t have any symptoms to warn of early esophageal cancer, the cancer institute says. However, as the cancer grows, it can cause a number of symptoms. Those symptoms may be caused by other diseases, so it’s best to check with your doctor. They can include:

  • Difficult or painful swallowing;
  • Severe weight loss;
  • Pain in the throat or back, behind the breastbone or between the shoulder blades;
  • Hoarseness or chronic cough;
  • Vomiting; and
  • Coughing up blood.

But the best way to deal with cancer is to do all you can to avoid it. Sharon Mitchell, vice president of the American Business Medical Services clinic in the Jessup Truck Stop near Baltimore, said there are several things truckers can do to reduce the chance of suffering reflux, one of the risk factors for esophageal cancer:

  • Avoid spicy and fried foods;
  • Decrease your consumption of alcohol;
  • Stop smoking or using smokeless tobacco; and
  • Elevate the head of your bed.

The last item on the list can present a problem, said Mitchell, who is better known by her screen name on the TruckNet forum, Nurse Red. Since many truckers get their night’s rest in a sleeper berth rather than a traditional bed, rather than trying to elevate the whole bed, she says truckers can get a “wedge pillow” to go under their sleeper mattress to raise the head.

There are also a host of drugs that can help reduce acid in the stomach, ranging from over-the-counter antacids such as Maalox or Rolaids and acid blockers such as Pepcid and Zantac, to prescription medicines such as Prevacid and Prilosec, among others. Again, it’s best to ask your doctor what will be most effective for you.

— by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor