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Yale J Biol Med. 1999 Mar-Jun; 72(2-3): 101–111.
PMCID: PMC2579017

The role of hiatus hernia in GERD.

Abstract

Increased esophageal acid exposure in gastroesophageal reflux disease has several potential causes, some related primarily to physiological dysfunction of the LES and others related to anatomic distortion of the gastroesophageal junction as occurs with hiatus hernia. One attractive feature of implicating hiatal hernias in the pathogenesis of reflux disease is that, like reflux disease, axial hernias become more common with age and obesity. However, the importance of hiatus hernia is obscured by imprecise definition and an all-or-none conceptualization that has led to wide variation in estimates of prevalence among normal or diseased populations. There are at least three potentially significant radiographic features of a hiatus hernia: axial length during distention, axial length at rest, and competence of the diaphragmatic hiatus. Although any or all of these features may be abnormal in a particular instance of hiatus hernia, each is of different functional significance. Grouping all abnormalities of the gastroesophageal junction as "hiatus hernia" without detailing the specifics of each case defies logic. Mechanistically, the gastroesophageal junction must protect against reflux both in static and dynamic conditions. During abrupt increases in intra-abdominal pressure, the crural diaphragm normally serves as a "second sphincter," and this mechanism is substantially impaired in individuals with a gaping hiatus. Large, non-reducing hernias also impair the process of esophageal emptying, thereby prolonging acid clearance time following a reflux event (especially while in the supine posture). These anatomically-determined functional impairments of the gastroesophageal junction lead to increased esophageal acid exposure. Thus, although hiatus hernia may or may not be an initiating factor at the inception of reflux disease, it clearly can act as a sustaining factor accounting for the frequently observed chronicity of the disease.

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