Barrett's Esophagus Explained

Definition and Facts for Barrett's Syndrome

What is Barrett's Esophagus?
This condition, also called BE or Barrett's Syndrome, is a problem in which tissue that is similar to the lining of your intestine replaces the tissue lining your esophagus. Doctors call this process intestinal metaplasia. 

Are people with Barrett’s esophagus more likely to develop cancer?

People with this condition are more likely to develop a rare type of cancer called esophageal adenocarcinoma.

The risk of esophageal adenocarcinoma in people with this condition is about 0.5 percent per year. Typically, before this cancer develops, precancerous cells appear in the Barrett’s tissue. Doctors call this condition dysplasia and classify the dysplasia as low grade or high grade.

You may have Barrett’s Syndrome for many years before cancer develops. Visit the National Cancer Institute web site to learn more about esophageal adenocarcinoma.

How common is Barrett’s esophagus?
Experts aren’t sure how common the condition is. Researchers estimate that it affects 1.6 to 6.8 percent of people.

Who is more likely to develop the condition?
Men develop the condition twice as often as women, and Caucasian men develop this condition more often than men of other races. The average age at diagnosis is 55. The condition is uncommon in children.

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Symptoms and Causes of Barrett's Syndrome

What are the symptoms of Barrett’s esophagus?
While the condition itself doesn’t cause symptoms, many people experience gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which does cause symptoms.

What causes the condition?

Experts don’t know the exact cause. However, some factors can increase or decrease your chance of developing the condition. 

What factors increase a person’s chances of developing Barrett’s esophagus?
Having GERD increases your chances of developing it. GERD is a more serious, chronic form of gastroesophageal reflux, a condition in which stomach contents flow back up into your esophagus. Refluxed stomach acid that touches the lining of your esophagus can cause heartburn and damage the cells in your esophagus. 

Between 5 and 10 percent of people with GERD develop Barrett’s esophagus.

Obesity—specifically high levels of belly fat—and smoking also increase your chances of developing the condition. Some studies suggest that your genetics, or inherited genes, may play a role in whether or not you develop the condition.

What factors decrease a person’s chances of developing the condition?

Having a Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection may decrease your chances of developing the condition. Doctors are not sure how H. pylori protects against it. While the bacteria damage your stomach and the tissue in your duodenum, some researchers believe the bacteria make your stomach contents less damaging to your esophagus if you have GERD.

Researchers have found that other factors may decrease the chance of developing the condition, including

  • frequent use of aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and certain vitamins

Diagnosis of Barrett's Syndrome

How do doctors diagnose Barrett’s esophagus?
Doctors diagnose this condition with an upper gastrointestinal (GI) endoscopy and a biopsy. Doctors may diagnose the condition while performing tests to find the cause of a patient’s gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) symptoms.

Medical history
Your doctor will ask you to provide your medical history. Your doctor may recommend testing if you have multiple factors that increase your chances of developing this condition. 

Upper GI endoscopy and biopsy
In an upper GI endoscopy, a gastroenterologist, surgeon, or other trained health care provider uses an endoscope to see inside your upper GI tract, most often while you receive light sedation. The doctor carefully feeds the endoscope down your esophagus and into your stomach and duodenum. The procedure may show changes in the lining of your esophagus.

The doctor performs a biopsy with the endoscope by taking a small piece of tissue from the lining of your esophagus. You won’t feel the biopsy. A pathologist examines the tissue in a lab to determine whether Barrett’s esophagus cells are present. A pathologist who has expertise in diagnosing the condition may need to confirm the results.

The condition can be difficult to diagnose because it does not affect all the tissue in your esophagus. The doctor takes biopsy samples from at least eight different areas of the lining of your esophagus.

Treatment for Barrett's Syndrome

How do doctors treat Barrett’s esophagus?
Your doctor will talk about the best treatment options for you based on your overall health, whether you have dysplasia, and its severity. Treatment options include medicines for GERD, endoscopic ablative therapies, endoscopic mucosal resection, and surgery. 

Periodic surveillance endoscopy
Your doctor may use upper gastrointestinal endoscopy with a biopsy periodically to watch for signs of cancer development. Doctors call this approach surveillance. 
Experts aren’t sure how often doctors should perform surveillance endoscopies. Talk with your doctor about what level of surveillance is best for you. Your doctor may recommend endoscopies more frequently if you have high-grade dysplasia rather than low-grade or no dysplasia.

If you have Barrett’s esophagus and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), your doctor will treat you with acid-suppressing medicines called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). These medicines can prevent further damage to your esophagus and, in some cases, heal existing damage. 

PPIs include:

  • omeprazole (Prilosec, Zegerid)
  • lansoprazole (Prevacid)
  • pantoprazole (Protonix)
  • rabeprazole (AcipHex)
  • esomeprazole (Nexium)
  • dexlansoprazole (Dexilant)

All of these medicines are available by prescription. Omeprazole and lansoprazole are also available in over-the-counter strength.

Your doctor may consider anti-reflux surgery if you have GERD symptoms and don’t respond to medicines. However, research has not shown that medicines or surgery for GERD and Barrett’s esophagus lower your chances of developing dysplasia or esophageal adenocarcinoma.

Endoscopic ablative therapies
Endoscopic ablative therapies use different techniques to destroy the dysplasia in your esophagus. After the therapies, your body should begin making normal esophageal cells.

Radiologists perform these procedures at certain hospitals and outpatient centers. You will receive local anesthesia and a sedative. The most common procedures are the following:

Photodynamic therapy 
Photodynamic therapy uses a light-activated chemical called porfimer (Photofrin), an endoscope, and a laser to kill precancerous cells in your esophagus. A doctor injects porfimer into a vein in your arm, and you return 24 to 72 hours later to complete the procedure.

Complications of photodynamic therapy may include:

  • sensitivity of your skin and eyes to light for about 6 weeks after the procedure
  • burns, swelling, pain, and scarring in nearby healthy tissue
  • coughing, trouble swallowing, stomach pain, painful breathing, and shortness of breath.
Radiofrequency ablation 
Radiofrequency ablation uses radio waves to kill precancerous and cancerous cells in the Barrett’s tissue. An electrode mounted on a balloon or an endoscope creates heat to destroy the Barrett’s tissue and precancerous and cancerous cells.

Complications may include:
  • chest pain
  • cuts in the lining of your esophagus
  • strictures
Clinical trials have shown that complications are less common with radiofrequency ablation compared with photodynamic therapy.

Endoscopic mucosal resection
In endoscopic mucosal resection, your doctor lifts the Barrett’s tissue, injects a solution underneath or applies suction to the tissue, and then cuts the tissue off. The doctor then removes the tissue with an endoscope. Gastroenterologists perform this procedure at certain hospitals and outpatient centers. You will receive local anesthesia to numb your throat and a sedative to help you relax and stay comfortable.

Before performing an endoscopic mucosal resection for cancer, your doctor will do an endoscopic ultrasound.

Complications can include bleeding or tearing of your esophagus. Doctors sometimes combine endoscopic mucosal resection with photodynamic therapy.

Surgery called esophagectomy is an alternative to endoscopic therapies. Many doctors prefer endoscopic therapies because these procedures have fewer complications.

Esophagectomy is the surgical removal of the affected sections of your esophagus. After removing sections of your esophagus, a surgeon rebuilds your esophagus from part of your stomach or large intestine. The surgery is performed at a hospital. You’ll receive general anesthesia, and you’ll stay in the hospital for 7 to 14 days after the surgery to recover.
Surgery may not be an option if you have other medical problems. Your doctor may consider the less-invasive endoscopic treatments or continued frequent surveillance instead.

Eating, Diet, and Nutrition for Barrett's Syndrome

How can your diet help prevent Barrett’s esophagus?

Researchers have not found that diet and nutrition play an important role in causing or preventing the condition. If you have gastroesophageal reflux (GER) or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), you can prevent or relieve your symptoms by changing your diet. Dietary changes that can help reduce your symptoms include
  • decreasing fatty foods
  • eating small, frequent meals instead of three large meals

Avoid eating or drinking the following items that may make GER or GERD worse:

  • chocolate
  • coffee
  • peppermint
  • greasy or spicy foods
  • tomatoes and tomato products
  • alcoholic drinks

This information originally appeared on the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases web site.

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