Barrett’s esophagus is a condition in which the tissue lining the esophagus—the muscular tube that connects the mouth to the stomach—is replaced by tissue that is similar to the lining of the intestine. This process is called intestinal metaplasia.
No signs or symptoms are associated with Barrett’s esophagus, but it is commonly found in people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). A small number of people with Barrett’s esophagus develop a rare but often deadly type of cancer of the esophagus.
Barrett’s esophagus affects about 1 percent of adults in the United States. The average age at diagnosis is 50, but determining when the problem started is usually difficult. Men develop Barrett’s esophagus twice as often as women, and Caucasian men are affected more frequently than men of other races. Barrett’s esophagus is uncommon in children.
The esophagus carries food and liquids from the mouth to the stomach. The stomach slowly pumps the food and liquids into the intestine, which then absorbs needed nutrients. This process is automatic and people are usually not aware of it. People sometimes feel their esophagus when they swallow something too large, try to eat too quickly, or drink very hot or cold liquids.
The muscular layers of the esophagus are normally pinched together at both the upper and lower ends by muscles called sphincters. When a person swallows, the sphincters relax to allow food or drink to pass from the mouth into the stomach. The muscles then close rapidly to prevent the food or drink from leaking out of the stomach back into the esophagus and mouth.
GERD and Barrett’s Esophagus
The exact causes of Barrett’s Esophagus are not known, but GERD is a risk factor for the condition. Although people who do not have GERD can have Barrett’s Esophagus, the condition is found about three to five times more often in people who also have GERD.
Since Barrett’s Esophagus is more commonly seen in people with GERD, most physicians recommend treating GERD symptoms with acid-reducing drugs.
Improvement in GERD symptoms may lower the risk of developing Barrett’s Esophagus. A surgical procedure may be recommended if medications are not effective in treating GERD.
How is Barrett’s esophagus diagnosed?
Because Barrett’s esophagus does not cause any symptoms, many physicians recommend that adults older than 40 who have had GERD for a number of years undergo an endoscopy and biopsies to check for the condition.
Barrett’s esophagus can only be diagnosed using an upper gastrointestinal (GI) endoscopy to obtain biopsies of the esophagus. In an upper GI endoscopy, after the patient is sedated, the doctor inserts a flexible tube called an endoscope, which has a light and a miniature camera, into the esophagus. If the tissue appears suspicious, the doctor removes several small pieces using a pincher-like device that is passed through the endoscope. A pathologist examines the tissue with a microscope to determine the diagnosis.