Barrett’s Esophagus: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

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Barrett’s esophagus is a condition that replaces the tissue in your esophagus with tissue similar to what’s found in your intestinal lining. The condition develops over time and typically develops in individuals diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Although GERD is fairly common, only a small group of people diagnosed with GERD will end up with Barrett’s esophagus.

It’s important to note that if you’re diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus, you may have an increased risk of esophageal cancer later down the road. The likelihood of developing cancer is small, but it’s important to attend regular checkups to screen for precancerous cells, known as dysplasia, in order to prevent cancer growth.

Barrett’s Esophagus Causes

Barrett’s esophagus has no known cause other than the fact that many diagnosed with the condition also have GERD. GERD causes stomach acid to retreat back up the esophagus, damaging the tissue. As the tissue begins to heal, the cells sometimes undergo a change and become the cells indicative of Barrett’s esophagus. Barrett’s esophagus isn’t limited to individuals with GERD, though. In fact, the condition can appear in people with no prior experience with GERD or acid reflux. To this day, it’s unknown why Barrett’s esophagus shows up in these people.

In addition, there are other risk factors that may leave you vulnerable to Barrett’s esophagus, including the following:

  • Age: The condition is more likely to develop in older adults.
  • Gender: Men are more likely to develop the condition.
  • Race: Caucasians are much more likely to develop Barrett’s esophagus.
  • Weight: Being overweight or obese makes you more vulnerable to the condition.

Barrett’s Esophagus Symptoms

While Barrett’s esophagus doesn’t have specific symptoms, the acid reflux that contributes to it often results in heartburn, difficulty swallowing, and chest pain. In rare cases, Barrett’s esophagus may result in esophageal cancer and other more unpleasant symptoms, including painful swallowing and weight loss. It’s also common for people diagnosed with the condition to display no symptoms or signs.

Barrett’s Esophagus Diagnosis

If you think you may have Barrett’s esophagus, schedule an appointment with your doctor. During your appointment, your doctor will perform a physical exam and discuss your medical history and any symptoms you may be experiencing. From there, your doctor may recommend performing an endoscopy to determine whether you have Barrett’s esophagus. 

During the endoscopy, your doctor will use a lighted tube with a camera attached to the end to check your throat for signs of changes in your esophageal tissue. If the tissue appears red, it may be an indication of Barrett’s esophagus, and your doctor may perform a tissue biopsy.

Barrett’s Esophagus Treatment

If you’re diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus, your doctor will discuss a variety of treatment options depending on the extent of your condition. Common treatment options include the following:

  • Medications for GERD
  • Endoscopic Ablative Therapies
  • Endoscopic Mucosal Resection
  • Surgery

Barrett’s Esophagus Prognosis

Typically, if your doctor diagnoses the condition soon enough, your doctor can treat it fairly easily with medications or by recommending lifestyle changes. More advanced stages of the condition might require more extensive medical treatments. In these cases, it’s always important to discuss the pros and cons, so you understand what to expect.