Barrett's esophagus is a condition in which there is an abnormal change in the normal tissue lining of the lower esophagus- the swallowing tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. It usually occurs when the lower esophageal cells are repeatedly exposed to stomach acid. It is a serious complication of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)- a chronic regurgitation of acid from the stomach to the lower esophagus.
Barrett’s esophagus does not present any specific symptoms, although patients with Barrett’s esophagus may have GERD-related symptoms such as heartburns. If diagnosis of Barrett's esophagus has been made, routine examinations are important because it poses a serious risk of developing esophageal adenocarcinoma- a life-threatening cancer of the esophagus.
Periodic examinations are very important in preventing development of esophageal cancer. If precancerous esophageal cells are discovered at the earliest time possible, treatment can be more effective.
Does GERD cause Barrett's Esophagus?
Not always. Studies show that not everyone with GERD can develop Barrett's esophagus and not everyone with Barrett's esophagus has or develops GERD. However, long-term GERD may be a major risk factor for most people.
Anybody is capable of developing Barrett’s esophagus however, common risk factors include being male and being white. While men with long-term GERD are more susceptible to the disease than others.
Other risk factors of Barrett’s esophagus include the commencement of GERD at a younger age and having a history of smoking or smoking currently.
The exact cause of Barrett's esophagus is still unknown. However, its occurrence is likely associated with GERD wherein acid reflux from the stomach damages the lining and cells of the esophagus. As the esophagus tries to heal on its own, the cells abnormally change leading to the development of Barrett's esophagus. Other risk factors include obesity, smoking and genetics.
Signs and Symptoms
Barrett's esophagus does not have any specific symptoms. However, its symptoms are most likely related to acid reflux such as:
- Frequent and prolonged heartburn
- Swallowing difficulty
- Pain in the chest
- Abdominal pain when eating
- Chronic cough
There is a greater risk of developing esophageal cancer if Barrett's esophagus is left untreated. Although the cause is unknown, damaged cells in the esophagus may undergo precancerous changes. Frequent examinations may be necessary to prevent development of esophageal cancer and proper treatment can be given.
Test and Diagnosis
The diagnosis of Barrett's esophagus is generally based on endoscopic and microscopic findings. A procedure called endoscopy is used to examine the esophagus in which a lighted tube with a tiny camera is passed through your throat to the esophagus to determine if there is unusual changes in the esophageal tissues. A person with Barrett's esophagus has a tissue that appears red and velvety while a normal tissue appears pale and glossy.
The doctor will also get an esophageal tissue specimen for laboratory testing to determine the stage of cell changes.
The treatment for Barrett's esophagus depends on the person's over-all health or on the severity of the cell changes (dysplasia) in the esophagus. People with Barrett's esophagus who have GERD are given acid-suppressing medications such as omeprazole (Prilosec) or esomeprazole (Nexium).
Laser procedures such as photodynamic therapy and radiofrequency ablation can be utilized to destroy precancerous cells and cancerous cells in the esophagus. In severe cases, surgical removal of the esophagus (esophagectomy) may be performed.
Dietary change is necessary to lower the risk of Barrett's esophagus. A high intake of fruits, vegetables, and vitamins may help prevent the disease. In addition, people who are overweight may consider losing weight to prevent their risk.