Acid reflux is a mild gastrointestinal problem that affects millions of Americans every year. In fact, most estimates indicate that about 20% of Americans will develop a problem with acid reflux at some point in their lives. It remains one of the most commonly diagnosed gastrointestinal disorders in the United States. Because of this, a number of treatment options have been developed to help ease symptoms. One popular option is an acid reflux pillow.

What is Acid Reflux?

To understand an acid reflux pillow as a treatment option, it’s helpful to first understand the condition itself. Acid reflux is also sometimes known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and the two terms can essentially be used interchangeably. In short, acid reflux involves stomach contents rising up into the esophagus and causing a series of symptoms. Acid reflux is a chronic condition for many people, and it therefore requires management or treatment on a regular basis. The following symptoms are commonly associated with the condition:

  • heartburn (acid indigestion)
  • chest pain
  • taste of acid in the mouth due to regurgitation
  • nausea
  • belching
  • sore throat
  • wheezing or hoarseness

When you eat food, it travels down the esophagus and passes through a small ring of muscle that acts like a valve; this muscle is called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), and it normally stays closed until food passes through. In people with acid reflux, however, the LES may not close all the way (or it may simply open too often). In these circumstances, the acids contained in the digestive juices produced by the stomach can rise up into the esophagus and cause the aforementioned symptoms.

What Causes Acid Reflux?

Since improper closure of the lower esophageal sphincter is the primary cause of acid reflux symptoms, anything that weakens the LES can be a potential cause. One of the most common causes is called a hiatal hernia; in this condition, the top of the stomach pushes through the diaphragm (a thin wall of muscle in the abdomen) and disrupts normal LES function. A similarly “mechanical” cause of acid reflux is related to obesity; excessive belly fat can put pressure on the stomach so that the digestive juices regularly get squeezed out of the stomach and up into the esophagus.

For most people, however, acid reflux is a less frequent occurrence that is usually the result of predictable physical effects or dietary choices. For example, lying down shortly after eating increases the chances of developing acid reflux because the peristaltic contractions of the stomach can more easily splash up into the esophagus. Additionally, certain foods and beverages are more likely to lead to it: citrus fruits, tomatoes, chocolate, onions, spicy foods, fatty foods, alcohol, coffee, carbonated drinks, and more.

How Can an Acid Reflux Pillow Help?

As alluded to above, one important factor in treating or managing acid reflux is gravity. When sitting or standing, food easily travels down the esophagus and settles at the bottom of the stomach. But when lying down, gravity is no longer helpful in confining the stomach contents; just think of a plastic bag with liquid in it laying on its side—if the bag weren’t secured properly, liquid would easily leak out. The same principle is true when lying down after eating; the stomach is busily sloshing around stomach acid, and a poorly closing LES will allow that acid to move up the esophagus.

It is this principle of gravity assistance that’s behind using a special pillow as a means of treating acid reflux. But for people who have regular acid reflux or chronic GERD, lying down can be a problem even outside of times when they’ve just eaten. So an acid reflux pillow is really just a regular foam pillow that is shaped like a wedge. The triangular shape allows the head and upper torso to be angled slightly so that it will be less likely for digestive juices to splash up into the esophagus.

Types of Acid Reflux Pillows

Though almost any wedge pillow may suffice for lifting the head enough to make a difference, there are now many varieties of pillow that can help. In general, doctors recommend a wedge pillow that lifts the upper torso at least 6-8 inches off the mattress in order to be effective. Since most normal pillows are filled with fluff that easily compresses, wedge pillows are instead filled with memory foam or some other semi-rigid material. The goal is to make the pillow as soft and comfortable as possible while also having enough rigidity to effectively prop up the head.

The best wedge pillows are typically made of polyurethane foam and come with a zippered, washable, removal cover. Some memory foam pillow options use the same kind of material used in mattresses as well. These foam wedge pillows are designed with back sleepers in mind; people who sleep on their back benefit from the easy incline. As long as they don’t move around too much during the night, such a back wedge can provide significant reflux relief and result in overall better sleep.

Not all people use the same sleeping position, however; indeed, many people tend to toss and turn and switch up their sleep position throughout the night. Other people tend to be side sleepers, and they require a different kind of foam bed wedge in order to maintain an angled, upright position throughout the night. For people in this camp, one of the best recommendations is a body pillow that simultaneously creates an upper body incline as well as allowing you to sleep on your side.

Some recent studies into the effects of sleeping position on GERD have actually indicated that sleeping on the left side may actually be preferable. Researchers found that sleeping on one’s left side causes a greater separation between the sphincter “valve” at the base of the esophagus and where food and stomach acid tend to pool. This research eventually led to the development of the MedCline body pillow, a pillow that has a wedge component that raises the head as well as a long body pillow component that encourages sleeping on the left side with a special arm pocket. Many people report fewer problems with acid reflux as a result of using the pillow.

When to See a Doctor

Purchasing an acid reflux pillow is a straightforward and easy way to decrease the likelihood of having acid reflux symptoms, but it isn’t the only way to treat the condition. If dietary modifications and changes to sleeping accoutrements don’t seem to be making much of a difference, there may be an underlying condition to blame (like a hiatal hernia, for instance). In such cases, more robust treatments may be required.

If you have chronic acid reflux or GERD, you’re probably looking for any kind of help to relieve the symptoms. If so, it may be time to contact a doctor. At Cary Gastro, our experienced and highly trained staff are dedicated to providing excellent digestive healthcare so that you can have excellent quality of life and a good night’s sleep! Please contact us today to request an appointment with a gastroenterologist.