Heartburn doesn’t seem like it should be a disabling condition, but severe, chronic heartburn can limit daily activities. Many veterans suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and the symptoms can be significant. GERD can occur due to service-related activities or as a complication of other service-linked disabilities, making you eligible for VA disability benefits.
Learn more about how you can get the VA benefits you deserve for GERD.
What Is GERD?
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a common and uncomfortable condition where stomach acid flows into the esophagus. It’s commonly known as reflux, heartburn, or acid indigestion. Many people experience occasional bouts of heartburn. With GERD, the condition becomes chronic, and symptoms occur regularly.
Symptoms of GERD
The symptoms of GERD can vary. Common symptoms include:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty swallowing
- New or worsening asthma
- Sore throat
Symptoms may worsen when you lie down or after eating certain foods. Fried, spicy, and acidic foods like citrus and dairy may exacerbate GERD for some people.
Causes of GERD
There is a band of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus that opens when you swallow. That allows food to empty into the stomach. The muscle is supposed to stay closed when you’re not swallowing to prevent your stomach contents from returning to the esophagus. If the muscles are weakened or forced open by pressure, the stomach contents, including stomach acids, can creep upward into the esophagus. Factors that can cause this include:
- Damage to the tissue of the esophagus
- Delayed stomach emptying
- Hiatal hernia
Is GERD a Disability?
GERD can be severe enough to interfere with daily activities. The pain and digestive problems of GERD can make it difficult to work or engage in other activities. In addition, the discomfort may affect your sleep, leaving you constantly fatigued. You may have to limit your diet, which may affect your energy levels. The main treatments for GERD are medications, which can become a long-term cost.
The VA does not have a diagnostic code for GERD in its disability ratings. It addresses the symptoms of GERD under the diagnostic code for a hiatal hernia (Diagnostic Code 7346), which is sometimes a cause of GERD. If you apply for a VA disability claim for GERD symptoms, they may categorize your disability as a hiatal hernia since it is the most analogous diagnosis available.
The disability rating for GERD symptoms in the hiatal hernia classification are:
- 60% — Symptoms of pain, vomiting, material weight loss, and hematemesis or melena with moderate anemia; or other symptom combinations productive of severe impairment of health
- 30% — Persistently recurrent epigastric distress with dysphagia, pyrosis, and regurgitation, accompanied by substernal or arm or shoulder pain, productive of considerable impairment of health
- 10% — With two or more of the symptoms for the 30% evaluation of less severity
GERD as a Secondary Disability
The symptoms of GERD are linked to other disabling conditions recognized by the VA. If you are already receiving disability payments for one of those conditions, you may be able to apply for a secondary disability rating for your GERD symptoms. GERD is frequently related to conditions including:
- Anxiety disorders or PTSD
- Medications including pain medication, muscle relaxants, and some high blood pressure medications
- Chronic coughing
- Peritoneal adhesions
We have represented many veterans who suffer from PTSD or other anxiety disorders. Often, these veterans develop GERD associated with their service-connected psychiatric condition. In these cases, a valid secondary claim for GERD should be made.
Applying for Disability for GERD
To qualify for VA disability benefits for a GERD, you must prove that your military service caused or aggravated your symptoms. This is easiest to demonstrate if you incurred an injury or illness that caused GERD during active duty or had the early symptoms of the condition documented in your service treatment records. Your service records should contain information about any pertinent injuries or illnesses. You can also provide your medical records to show how the symptoms are curtailing your normal activities.
If the problem persisted after service, obtaining statements from friends and family who can testify to your constant complaining about the problem following service can be helpful.
If your GERD diagnosis happened after leaving active duty, you might still qualify for benefits. Some causes of GERD can be attributed to activities performed during service, such as injuries or illness that led to a later onset of GERD. For example, you have a military service-linked condition that causes chronic coughing or obesity that could be connected to your GERD symptoms.
To apply for benefits for GERD as a primary disability, you will need to have a concrete diagnosis of your condition. You will need to submit copies of your medical records and test results. Your family, friends, and work colleagues can all submit statements about how your GERD symptoms limit your daily activities, including work.
Finally, you will need to be able to prove that GERD is linked to your military service. You will need a medical nexus letter. This is a report from a doctor concluding that your disability is caused by your military service, along with the reasons to support the conclusion.
If you are applying for secondary benefits for GERD, you will need to show a connection to your primary disability. If the VA accepts your claim, they will assign additional benefits based on the VA’s Combined Ratings Tables calculations. You will get a new monthly payment based on the combined ratings of GERD and prior disabilities.