In Scleroderma, GERD Questionnaires Are Essential Tools

Bruce Jancin

June 26, 2020

Every rheumatologist ought to be comfortable in using a validated gastrointestinal symptom scale for evaluation of gastroesophageal reflux disease in patients with scleroderma, Tracy M. Frech, MD, declared at the virtual edition of the American College of Rheumatology's 2020 State-of-the-Art Clinical Symposium.

About 90% of scleroderma patients will develop GI tract involvement during the course of their connective tissue disease. And while any portion of the GI tract from esophagus to anus can be involved, the most common GI manifestation is gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), affecting up to 90% of scleroderma patients, observed Dr. Frech, a rheumatologist and director of the systemic sclerosis clinic at the University of Utah and the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, both in Salt Lake City.

"It is essential to ask scleroderma patients questions in order to understand their gastrointestinal tract symptoms. The questionnaires are really critical for us to grade the severity and then properly order tests," she explained. "The goal is symptom identification, ideally with minimal time burden and at no cost, to guide decisions that move our patients' care forward."

Three of the most useful validated instruments for assessment of GERD symptoms in scleroderma patients in routine clinical practice are the GerdQ, the University of California, Los Angeles, Scleroderma Clinical Trial Consortium GI Tract Questionnaire (UCLA GIT) 2.0 reflux scale, and the Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System (PROMIS) reflux scale.

The GerdQ is a six-item, self-administered questionnaire in which patients specify how many days in the past week they have experienced heartburn, regurgitation, nausea, sleep interference, upper abdominal pain, and need for medication. A free online tool is available for calculating the likelihood of having GERD based upon GerdQ score. A score of 8 or more points out of a possible 18 has the highest sensitivity and specificity for diagnosis of GERD.

The UCLA GIT 2.0 – the most commonly used instrument for GI symptom assessment in scleroderma patients – includes 34 items. It takes 6-8 minutes to complete the whole thing, but patients being assessed for GERD only need answer the eight GERD-specific questions. Six of these eight questions are the same as in the GerdQ. One of the two extra questions asks about difficulty in swallowing solid food, which if answered affirmatively warrants early referral to a gastroenterologist. The other question inquires about any food triggers for the reflux, providing an opportunity for a rheumatologist to educate the patient about the importance of avoiding acidic foods, such as tomatoes, and other food and drink generally considered healthy but which actually exacerbate GERD.

The National Institutes of Health PROMIS scale, the newest of the three instruments, is a 60-item questionnaire; however, only 20 questions relate to reflux and dysphagia and are thus germane to a focused GERD assessment in scleroderma.

When a clinical diagnosis of GERD is made in a scleroderma patient based upon symptoms elicited by questionnaire, guidelines recommend a trial of empiric proton pump inhibitor therapy and behavioral interventions, such as raising the head of the bed, in order to confirm the diagnosis. If the patient reports feeling better after these basic interventions, the diagnosis is confirmed. If not, it's time to make a referral to a gastroenterologist for specialized care, Dr. Frech said.

Dr. Frech was a coinvestigator in an international, prospective, longitudinal study of patient-reported outcomes measures in 116 patients with scleroderma and GERD. All study participants had to complete the UCLA GIT 2.0, the PROMIS reflux scale, and a third patient-reported GERD measure both before and after the therapeutic intervention. The UCLA GIT 2.0 and PROMIS instruments demonstrated similarly robust sensitivity for identifying changes in GERD symptoms after therapeutic intervention.

"It doesn't really matter what questionnaire we're using," according to the rheumatologist. "But I will point out that there is significant overlap in symptoms among GERD, gastroparesis, functional dyspepsia, and eosinophilic esophagitis, all of which cause symptoms of heartburn and regurgitation. So we don't want to ask these questions just once, we want to make an intervention and then reask the questions to ensure that we're continuously moving forward with the gastrointestinal tract management plan."

Dr. Frech reported having no financial conflicts regarding her presentation.

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