Prescription medications to treat GERD include drugs called H2 receptor antagonists (H2 blockers) and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), which help to reduce the stomach acid that tends to worsen symptoms, and work to promote healing, as well as promotility agents that aid in the clearance of acid from the esophagus.
H2 Receptor Antagonists
Since the mid 1970's, acid suppression agents, known as H2 receptor antagonists or H2 blockers, have been used to treat GERD. H2 blockers improve the symptoms of heartburn and regurgitation and provide an excellent means of decreasing the flow of stomach acid to aid in the healing process of mild-to-moderate irritation of the esophagus, known as "esophagitis." Symptoms are eliminated in up to 50% of patients with twice a day prescription dosage of the H2 blockers. Healing of esophagitis may require higher dosing. These agents maintain remission in about 25% of patients.
H2 blockers are generally less expensive than proton pump inhibitors and can provide adequate initial treatment or serve as a maintenance agent in GERD patients with mild symptoms. Current treatment guidelines also recognize the appropriateness and in some cases desirability of using proton pump inhibitors as first-line therapy for some patients, particularly those with more severe symptoms or esophagitis on endoscopy. Proton pump inhibitors will be required to achieve effective long-term maintenance therapy in a significant percentage of heartburn/GERD patients.
Proton Pump lnhibitors
Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), have been found to heal erosive esophagitis (a serious form of GERD) more rapidly than H2 blockers. Proton pump inhibitors provide not only symptom relief, but also elimination of symptoms in most cases, even in those with esophageal ulcers. Studies have shown proton pump inhibitor therapy can provide complete endoscopic mucosal healing of esophagitis at 6 to 8 weeks in 75% to 100% of cases. Although healing of the esophagus may occur in 6 to 8 weeks, it should not be misunderstood that gastroesophageal reflux can be cured in that amount of time. The goal of therapy for GERD is to keep symptoms comfortably under control and prevent complications. As noted above, current guidelines recognize that heartburn and GERD are typically relapsing, potentially chronic conditions, that symptoms and mucosal injury will often reoccur when medications are withdrawn, and hence that a strategy for long-term maintenance therapy is generally required. Occasionally, a health care plan seeks to limit use of proton pump inhibitors to a fixed duration of perhaps 2-3 months and others have even cited FDA's approval of proton pump inhibitors for up to one year, as if that means that this therapy should be withdrawn after one year. There is no well-established scientific reason that supports withdrawing proton pump inhibitors after one year as these patients will invariably relapse. All gastroenterologists have patients who continue to do very well on proton pump inhibitors after many years' use without adverse side effects. Efforts by payors to limit access to these medications are generally a cost-saving initiative. Daily proton pump inhibitor treatment provides the best long-term maintenance therapy of esophagitis, particularly in keeping symptoms and the disease in remission for those patients with moderate to severe esophagitis, plus this form of treatment has been shown to retain remission for up to five years.
Promotility drugs are effective in the treatment of mild to moderately symptomatic GERD. These drugs increase lower esophageal sphincter pressure, which helps prevent acid reflux, and improves the movement of food from the stomach. They can decrease heartburn symptoms, especially at night, by improving the clearance of acid from the esophagus. Recent developments have greatly limited the availability of one of these agents, i.e. cisapride. Cisapride had been used widely for several years in treating night-time heartburn and was also used by some practitioners in the treatment of GERD symptoms in children. More recently, rare but potentially serious complications have been reported in some patients taking cisapride. These complications seem to be related to usage in patients on contraindicated medications or in patients with contraindicated medical conditions, such as underlying heart disease. In March of 2000, the manufacturer announced that it had reached a decision in consultation with the FDA to discontinue the marketing of the drug. The product will remain available only through a limited-access program. This program has been established for patients who fail other treatment options and who meet clearly defined eligibility criteria.