I am a board-certified anesthesiologist in Lake Tahoe, California. I write from the perspective of both a doctor and a patient.
A Common, Unpleasant Experience
Most people experience acid reflux at some point in their lives. For many, it is nothing more than an occasional annoyance associated with certain food and drinks—or with overindulgence in general.
On the other hand, some people may be quite debilitated by the symptoms. They may develop ulcers of the esophagus or stomach or a hiatal hernia.
Why Does Acid Reflux Matter During Anesthesia?
Under anesthesia, acid can reflux from the stomach into the esophagus. From the esophagus, the acid can enter the back of the throat and be aspirated into the lungs. This can cause damage to the lungs, infections, and problems with oxygen levels.
Aspiration pneumonia occurs when something has been inhaled into the lungs that doesn't belong there—acid, in this case—thereby causing damage. Aspiration pneumonia is a serious consequence of acid reflux under anesthesia if the acid reaches the lungs.
That's the brief explanation. Let's look more closely at the problem and potential solutions.
What Is Acid Reflux?
Because several terms are used interchangeably, discussions of acid reflux and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) can become confusing. In most cases, it doesn't much matter that the terms are used interchangeably, even though there are some differences.
For clarity, however, here are the phrases you may hear when discussing reflux or GERD. The esophagus is the "food pipe" leading from the mouth to the stomach. The prefix "gastro" means stomach. So, "gastroesophageal" means stomach and esophagus.
- Heartburn is the feeling (the symptom) of pain or burning that occurs when there is too much acid in the stomach or when that acid refluxes into the esophagus.
- Acid Reflux refers to the physiologic process of acid backing up into the esophagus from the stomach.
- GER stands for gastroesophageal reflux. This is the same as acid reflux, although food or liquids may also reflux into the esophagus and even up into the throat.
- GERD means gastroesophageal reflux disease. This is a more serious disorder that results from ongoing acid reflux. GERD may be associated with a stomach ulcer or a narrowing of the esophagus, and it is a risk factor for esophageal cancer.
This video provides an excellent explanation of heartburn, reflux, and GERD.
What Are the Dangers of Acid Reflux Under Anesthesia?
Normally, the lower esophageal sphincter (the muscular ring between the stomach and esophagus) works to keep stomach acid from backing up into the esophagus. As discussed in the video, this can result when the lower esophageal sphincter doesn't function properly.
Normally, if acid backs up all the way to the back of the throat, several protective airway reflexes keep the acid from then traveling down the trachea (windpipe) to the lungs. Closure of the vocal cords, coughing, and gagging are examples of these protective reflexes.
Under anesthesia, however, several things happen that make gastroesophageal reflux a danger.
- The lower esophageal sphincter relaxes even more, making it more likely that acid will reflux and could get into the lungs.
- The upper esophageal sphincter (at the top of the esophagus) also relaxes, allowing acid to enter the pharynx (back of the throat).
- Stomach emptying is impaired, and acid volume can increase, making reflux more likely—and more dangerous when it does occur.
- Airway reflexes are suppressed, and the unconscious patient is unable to protect the lungs. This increases the likelihood of "aspiration pneumonia."
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Precautions for Patients
- If you have symptoms of acid reflux, get an evaluation and treatment prior to surgery.
- Follow fasting instructions as to when to stop eating and drinking before surgery.
- Take medications at home as directed.
- Avoid trigger foods and drinks the night before surgery.
- Quit smoking well in advance of your surgery (eight weeks seems optimal).
- Make sure your anesthesiologist is aware if you have severe symptoms.
What Precautions Do Anesthesiologists Take?
We know that acid reflux can cause aspiration pneumonia, which can sometimes result in serious damage to the lungs. So, as anesthesiologists, our goal is to prevent this as much as possible in order to prevent aspiration pneumonia.
Our prevention regimen is also designed to minimize the damage should aspiration occur. We know that the extent of damage is influenced by two main variables:
- Amount of aspirate: The higher the volume of stomach fluid aspirated, the more damage that will occur. It seems that anything more than 20 to 25 mL (30 mL =1 oz) increases the risk of serious damage.
- Acidity: The more acidic (lower pH) the fluid that enters the lungs, the more harmful it is to the lung tissue.
So, the anesthesia plan will seek to minimize these two risks, in addition to preventing acid reflux and aspiration pneumonia in the first place. Medications and special adjustments of airway management during unconsciousness are used to this end.
To reduce the volume in the stomach that can potentially be aspirated, you will be asked to fast for a period of time before surgery. The anesthesiologist may put a medicine in your IV that helps the stomach empty properly (e.g., metoclopramide or Reglan) during and after anesthesia. This helps with nausea afterward, too.
To increase the pH (make the fluid less acidic), the anesthesiologist may use IV acid-blockers. Common medications like famotidine (Pepcid) and ranitidine (Zantac) are available IV. There is also a liquid that you may be asked to drink called bicitra that changes the pH of the stomach fluid.
Airway Management in High-Risk Patients
Anesthesia providers will also seek to prevent any refluxed acid from ever reaching the throat by providing a physical barrier to aspiration.
Oxygen and gas anesthesia can be delivered via a number of devices during general anesthesia. Masks (on the face or laryngeal mask airways—LMAs—that go in the back of the throat) do not block the trachea and therefore do not protect against aspiration. Endotracheal tubes do provide this protection and are therefore the airway device of choice for patients who have frequent or severe reflux or GERD.
What Does the Anesthesiologist Do to Prevent Aspiration?
As you "go to sleep" under anesthesia, your airway reflexes disappear. This is a high-risk time for aspiration. To prevent this, your anesthesiologist will have an assistant put pressure on the front of your neck by pushing down on the cricoid cartilage near the Adam's apple. This ring of cartilage is part of the windpipe, which is in front of the esophagus. By pushing on this rigid structure, pressure is transmitted backward, compressing the esophagus. Any acid is prevented from rising all the way up to the throat. This is called Sellick's maneuver.
In addition, your anesthesiologist will place the breathing tube quickly. The breathing tube goes between the vocal cords and extends a short way into the trachea. Circling the outside of the breathing tube is a balloon—shown below—that can be inflated. This cuff on the breathing tube prevents any acid that reaches the back of the throat from entering the windpipe.
At the end of the surgery, the breathing tube will not be removed until airway reflexes (swallowing, coughing, etc.) have returned. Usually, people are conscious but not really "awake" or aware when it is removed, and few people have any memory of the event.
This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Toddy on July 24, 2019:
I could not walk more than 50 yards off and on for few years because of stomatch acid. So, I decided to kill all bacterias, germs between my throat and stomatch by herbs tea. It worked overnight and I drink tea daily for a month to kill their eggs. They spreaded to my brain and caused mind fog. I drink more stronger herbs to suppress them in my brain for few weeks. Now I remember things quite well. Another problem is my chest pain increased because I lose legs' muscles and my heart must work harder when walking. So I started building up my legs' strength and looks like I almost recovered. It was horrible, I suffered a lot but finally I cured these illnesses and avoided surgeries. I knew germs cause because I got flu and sore throat weeks before GERD twice before it got worser. I was just lucky. Good luck.
Susan on February 01, 2019:
I suffer from acid reflux and am due to have a endoscopy under a general anaesthetic due to high anxiety but now I have read how dangerous it can be and I’m terrified I won’t survive the anaesthetic. Please help.
KathyH from Waukesha, Wisconsin on January 07, 2019:
This happened to me in 2015 - I went in for a simple D & C procedure and due to years of bad acid reflux problems, acid/bile came up during the procedure. I am on acid reflux medications and took a pill the night before but I guess it wasn't enough. I ended up spending three days in the ICU from a "simple procedure" due to aspiration pneumonia. Now I'm facing another D & C coming up in March. I am making sure to tell anyone and everyone about my past experience and I will make it clear to the anesthesiologist before the surgery too! I'm hoping that they take extra precautions like the ones in this article for a safe procedure. Honestly, it makes me just want to have a hysterectomy and get it OVER with once and for all... only my GYN is trying to be more conservative in her treatment for endometrial hyperplasia. Waking up in the ICU is TERRIBLE! And almost having to go home on oxygen is awful, too.. fortunately I didn't have to do that because I kept up with breathing exercises. The idea of surgery of any type terrifies me now. They said I MAY be able to have a local anesthetic.. do they mean like having an epidural type of anesthesia? I really need to talk to the anesthesiologist before they do anything!
Kathleen Jones on February 25, 2017:
This happened to me back in 2000. Went into have a quick liposcopic knee surgery and had no idea that the anti-inflammatory medication I was taking was going to cause acid reflux. Since, I was out I had no idea that this had happened and surgical team had to act fast and stick a suction tube done my throat. My 45 minute surgery turned into 4 hours. I had to stay and keep getting chest x-rays done before they would release me. I was only 27 at the time. Now I suffer from acid reflux really bad and I am scared to death to ever have another surgery, but thankfully the team acted quickly in this situation. So, make sure you tell your doctors even if you just have the occasional heartburn!
Pat on September 26, 2016:
I am scheduled for hip replacement surgery. I am scare of surgery because I have reflux now and then....and have read about aspiration. I am assuming that this can safely be addressed but I would like some peace of mind. Thank you.
deb from u.k on April 12, 2015:
Hi i suffer with acid reflux real badly. And have gastritis. Got to have an operation under general anaesthetic. I am really nervous about it. Will i be ok while im under anaesthesia. And could there be any complications.
Snicks on October 15, 2014:
I had a colonoscopy 4 weeks ago and vomited stomach acid, developed pneumonia and then had further complications from asthma. Have been on 2rounds of antibiotics and steroids. However, my voice has not recovered and am now being told that the acid probably burned my trachea. I sound awful. Was told to stay on steroid inhaler and that hopefully my voice will return to normal. What else can I do to heal it?
Joyce on August 13, 2014:
My son was due an operation they gave him the anesthetic but he was sick before the operation they had to cancel it because they said it was to dangerous they said he must if drunk water before but I know he didn't my husband has read up about seawater being in your stomach we were on holiday the week before and he was swimming in the sea all the time do you think that could have been the course any comments most welcome x
TahoeDoc (author) from Lake Tahoe, California on February 26, 2013:
Colonoscopies are usually done with moderate sedation. This means that your reflexes that prevent aspiration are supposed to be intact and while you may regurgitate some acid, you should not aspirate it. If you had a drop in oxygen level from it or have developed pneumonia or pneumonitis from the acid getting into your lungs, you should ask if you need antibiotics.
Whether something happened that 'shouldn't' have is too hard for me to say and would be unfair of me to speculate upon since I wasn't there. I'm sorry I can't help. But, it sounds like you are asking the right question. Perhaps you could go back and ask the GI doc or the anesthesiologist for their reasoning, especially if you've developed pneumonia or breathing issues from the aspiration.
Janet on February 26, 2013:
Two days ago, I underwent a colonoscopy. In the procedure room, while being prepared, I experienced a fairly serious bout of reflux and had to sit up in the presence of the Gastro doctor, the anesthesiologist and techs and nurses. While still sitting up, I asked if I would be okay being put to sleep while experiencing reflux. The answer was yes. Next thing I remember is waking up with extremely painful throat and being told that I threw up stomach acid and aspirated. (My stomach was empty of food etc). Was this below the standard of care because they did not raise my head or take other actions?
Savvet on September 26, 2012:
Hi, thank you for your timely response. I am pleased to read that you are a consultant . I will review your profile page and will ultimately contact you. We are unfortunately at an impass regarding causation and on very short timeline. I look forward to speaking with you ;)
TahoeDoc (author) from Lake Tahoe, California on September 26, 2012:
Hi Savvet- Unfortunately, I am unable to offer medical opinions on cases where I am not able to review the entire chart. If I am asked to do so, I would need to be contacted by a risk manager or attorney (if there is legal action) and hired as a consultant or expert to review the material. I do this kind of work and if you or a party are interested you may contact me through the link on my profile page for more information about fees and services.
Thank you. I'm sure you can understand that I cannot answer third party questions about specific medical cases, especially those involving standard of care issues or bad outcomes.
Savvet on September 26, 2012:
I just stumbled across your writing and I must say I am intrigued. I would like to email you with a specific case that involved a patient with severe acid reflux that was taken to IR for a jg tube placement. the patient was placed on IV sedation with no airway protection. Aspiration followed with bilateral infiltrates noted on rads post procedure. The pt passed away 5 weeks later . Like I said, I would love to Email you regarding the workings of this particular patient's care.
TahoeDoc (author) from Lake Tahoe, California on May 16, 2012:
Yep- There are all kinds of things that I had no idea, until I started my training, that I would have to consider in planning an anesthetic. Thanks for reading and commenting Marcy!
Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on April 28, 2012:
Wow - I had no idea anesthesiologists had to address this sort of thing along with other issues (the type of surgery, allergies, etc.). I've heard of both terms, and I know they can cause serious harm. This is a very helpful hub for anyone who has had these problems and is facing surgery, or for anyone with older relatives who might need surgery.
Thank you for this information!