What is Barrett's esophagus?

Dr. Ivana Dzeletovic is a gastroenterologist specializing in endoscopy at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert.

Question: What is Barrett's esophagus?

Answer: Barrett's esophagus is a condition in which the lining of the esophagus (a tube that connects your throat and stomach) is replaced with tissue that becomes more like the lining of the small intestines. This occurs in the area where the esophagus and stomach join. Having the condition is considered a risk factor for developing esophageal cancer.

It is believed that people who have experienced gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) for a long period of time are the most likely to develop Barrett's esophagus. However, not everyone with GERD will develop Barrett’s esophagus and not everyone with Barrett’s esophagus has GERD. Only a small percentage of people will actually get this condition.

With GERD, the acidic contents of the stomach flow backward into the esophagus. Over time, those acidic contents can damage the esophageal lining, causing it to be inflamed. As the esophagus tries to heal from this damage, it may undergo tissue changes that result in the esophagus developing the types of cells associated with Barrett's esophagus.

The changes in tissue that result from Barrett's esophagus do not cause any specific symptoms. Rather, any symptoms a patient might experience are likely due to GERD, the most common being heartburn at least twice weekly. Additional symptoms might include difficulty swallowing, and in some cases, chest pain.

Diagnosis of Barrett's esophagus can only be made with endoscopy and biopsy. Endoscopy is performed by a doctor called a gastroenterologist, who examines the esophagus by using a long thin tube with a camera at the end known as an upper endoscope. If there is a change in the lining of the esophagus and the doctor suspects Barrett’s esophagus, a sample of tissue called a biopsy will be taken in order to make a definitive diagnosis and determine if any future monitoring is necessary.