Typical GERD symptoms and esophageal pH monitoring are not enough to diagnose pharyngeal reflux

J Surg Res. 2005 Sep;128(1):55-60. doi: 10.1016/j.jss.2005.02.021. Epub 2005 Apr 14.


Background: Abnormal pharyngeal reflux of acid (PR) (as measured by pH monitoring) is associated with microaspiration, and is a good predictor of airway symptom response to medical and surgical anti-reflux therapy. However, in clinical practice the link between airway disease and Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is still based on the presence of typical symptoms (e.g., heartburn) and/or standard esophageal function testing (manometry and 24-pH monitoring). PR is rarely measured directly. We undertook this study to determine if typical symptoms and standard testing could reliably predict the presence of PR.

Methods: The study group consisted of 518 patients with suspected reflux induced airway disease evaluated from December 1998 through January 2002. Each patient completed a standardized symptom questionnaire, underwent esophageal manometry, and 24-h esophageal and pharyngeal pH monitoring. Patients were classified having abnormal pharyngeal reflux (PR+) if they had >1 episode of PR detected during pH monitoring.

Results: One hundred eighty-one patients were PR+ and 337 were PR-. The most common symptoms, namely cough (PR +73%, PR- 68%), hoarseness (PR +64%, PR- 66%), and dyspnea (PR +59%, PR- 59%) were present with similar incidence in PR+ and PR- patients. The incidence of heartburn was 54% in the PR+ and 52% in the PR- patients. Logistic regression analysis revealed that abnormal esophageal acid exposure was a predictor of PR+ (P < 0.001). Neither the presence of heartburn or specific respiratory symptoms, the pressure of the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) or upper esophageal sphincter (UES), or amplitude of esophageal contractions predicted PR+. There was substantial variability in esophageal length (UES to LES), thus the placement of the distal pH probe from the LES varied considerably (median = 13 cm, 2-20 cm). Using established normal values of acid exposure at multiple levels of the esophagus, 24% of PR+ patients had normal amounts of esophageal acid exposure.

Conclusions: Typical GERD symptoms, such as heartburn, and typical symptoms of aspiration such as hoarseness, cough, or dyspnea are not enough to positively identify PR. While patients with abnormal esophageal acid exposure are three times more likely than those with normal values to have PR, abnormal esophageal acid exposure alone does not identify all patients with PR. Therefore, relying on symptoms and standard diagnostic testing may fail to identify patients with extraesophageal reflux. Pharyngeal pH monitoring should be considered for patients with suspected reflux-induced airway disease.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Diagnostic Techniques, Digestive System*
  • Esophagus / physiology
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux / complications*
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Manometry
  • Monitoring, Physiologic
  • Pharyngeal Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Pharyngeal Diseases / etiology
  • Pharynx / physiology