Barrett's Esophagus is a serious complication of GERD, which stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease. In Barrett's esophagus, normal tissue lining the esophagus -- the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach -- changes to tissue that resembles the lining of the intestine. About 10% of people with chronic symptoms of GERD develop Barrett's esophagus.
Barrett's esophagus does not have any specific symptoms, although patients with Barrett's esophagus may have symptoms related to GERD. It does, though, increase the risk of developing esophageal adenocarcinoma, which is a serious, potentially fatal cancer of the esophagus.
Although the risk of this cancer is higher in people with Barrett's esophagus, the disease is still rare. Less than 1% of people with Barrett's esophagus develop this particular cancer. Nevertheless, if you've been diagnosed with Barrett's esophagus, it's important to have routine examinations of your esophagus. With routine examination, your doctor can discover precancerous and cancer cells early, before they spread and when the disease is easier to treat.
Most people with acid reflux don't develop Barrett's esophagus. But in patients with frequent acid reflux, the normal cells in the esophagus may eventually be replaced by cells that are similar to cells in the intestine to become Barrett's esophagus.
Does GERD Always Cause Barrett's Esophagus?
Not everyone with GERD develops Barrett's esophagus. And not everyone with Barrett's esophagus had GERD. But long-term GERD is the primary risk factor.
The sample will be examined for the presence of precancerous cells or cancer. If the biopsy confirms the presence of Barrett's esophagus, your doctor will probably recommend a follow-up endoscopy and biopsy to examine more tissue for early signs of developing cancer.
If you have Barrett's esophagus but no cancer or precancerous cells are found, the doctor will still most likely recommend that you have periodic repeat endoscopy. This is a precaution, because cancer can develop in Barrett tissue years after diagnosing Barrett's esophagus. If precancerous cells are present in the biopsy, your doctor will discuss treatment and surveillance options with you.
Can Barrett's Esophagus Be Treated?
One of the primary goals of treatment is to prevent or slow the development of Barrett's esophagus by treating and controlling acid reflux. This is done with lifestyle changes and medication. Lifestyle changes include taking steps such as:
Make changes in your diet. Fatty foods, chocolate, caffeine, spicy foods, and peppermint can aggravate reflux.
Avoid alcohol, caffeinated drinks, and tobacco.
Lose weight. Being overweight increases your risk for reflux.
Sleep with the head of the bed elevated. Sleeping with your head raised may help prevent the acid in your stomach from flowing up into the esophagus.
Don't lie down for 3 hours after eating.
Take all medicines with plenty of water.
The doctor may also prescribe medications to help. Those medications may include:
Proton pump inhibitors that reduce the production of stomach acid
Antacids to neutralize stomach acid
H2 blockers that lessen the release of stomach acid
Promotility agents -- drugs that speed up the movement of food from the stomach to the intestines
A diagnosis of Barrett's esophagus is not a cause for major alarm. Barrett's esophagus, however, can lead to precancerous changes in a small number of people and has an increased risk for cancer. So, a diagnosis is a reason to work with your doctor to be watchful of your health.