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Barrett's esophagus is a condition in which normal cells that line the esophagus, called squamous cells, turn into cells not usually found in humans, called specialized columnar cells. This process is called intestinal metaplasia because the specialized columnar cells are similar to the lining of the intestine. Damage to the lining of the esophagus causes the cells to change. Less than 1 percent of people with this condition develop cancer of the esophagus. However, having Barrett's esohagus may increase the risk of developing esophageal cancer.
Barrett's esophagus develops in some people who have chronic gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or esophagitis (inflammation of the esophagus). It is believed that damage to the lining of the esophagus, caused by these conditions, causes these abnormal cell changes.
People who have had long-standing heartburn are at risk for Barrett's esophagus and should discuss this with their physician.
The following are the most common symptoms of Barrett's esophagus. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
Some persons with this condition may be asymptomatic. The symptoms of Barrett's esophagus may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.
In addition to physical examination, the physician will perform an endoscopy, during which a long, thin tube, called an endoscope, is inserted through the mouth and gently guided into the esophagus. This contains instruments that allow the physician to see the lining of the esophagus and remove a small tissue sample (a biopsy), which is examined in a laboratory to determine whether the normal squamous cells have been replaced with columnar cells. If a person complains of trouble swallowing, an upper GI barium study may be helpful in identifying areas of narrowing called strictures.
Specific treatment for Barrett's esophagus will be determined by your physician based on:
Currently, there is no cure for Barrett's esophagus. Once the cells in the esophageal lining have been replaced by columnar cells, they will not revert back to normal. Thus, treatment is aimed at preventing further damage from occurring by stopping acid reflux from the stomach. Treatment may include: