Barrett's Esophagus

Barrett's Esophagus

Barrett's Esophagus
The name may not be familiar to you, but thousands of Americans are diagnosed each year with Barrett's esophagus, a precancerous condition often associated with severe heartburn. If you have been told you have Barrett's Esophagus, this brochure may help answer some of your questions. If you have additional questions, ask your doctor.

What Is Barrett's Esophagus?

To help you digest your food, your stomach produces large amounts of hydrochloric acid every day. This powerful acid can liquefy a piece of meat in a short time, but amazingly does not damage your stomach itself. This is because your stomach has a special lining to protect itself from the effects of the acid. However, your esophagus, or food pipe, has no protective lining. Instead, there is a one-way valve located at the bottom of the esophagus that normally prevents backflow of stomach acid.

Called the Lower Esophageal Sphincter, this valve opens to allow food to enter the stomach and then quickly closes to prevent the corrosive stomach acid from damaging your delicate esophageal lining. If this valve gets weak, however, acid from the stomach is allowed to come up into the esophagus causing red erosions, like scrapes of the skin, on the normally pinkish lining of the esophagus. This condition is called Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, or GERD.

If the condtion is not properly treated, the erosions will continue and over time a permanent red lining will develop. The cells in this lining resemble those of the small intestine more so than the normal esophagus, and are termed "intestinal metaplasia." This is the hallmark of Barrett's Esophagus - named after British surgeon, Norman Barrett, who first identified this ailment in 1950. So, Barrett's is a condition where the pink lining of the lower esophagus is damaged by months or years of uncontrolled heartburn and then the damaged area is replaced by a new abnormal red lining which "creeps up" into the lower esophagus.

How Common Is Barrett's Esophagus?

Twenty percent or more of adults have chronic GERD and of these 10% to 15% will have Barrett's esophagus, meaning that 1% to 2% of the American adult population potentially has this premalignant condition. Men and women with chronic severe reflux have over a 50% chance of having Barrett's esophagus.

Why Is Barrett's Important?

Overall, only about 10% of individuals with Barrett's esophagus will go on to develop esophageal cancer, but this rate is 40 times higher than normal. Considered an oddity until the 1970's, the incidence of esophageal cancer has increased rapidly in the past 30 years and is now the fastest rising cancer in adults.

What are the Symptoms?

There really are no symptoms of Barrett's itself, but most patients have a history of long-standing acid reflux and complain of heartburn or indigestion, occurring at least two times a week. Other symptoms may include: difficulty swallowing food, waking up at night because of heartburn pains, persistent unexplained cough, or hoarseness. If you have these symptoms, you should be checked for Barrett's. Unfortunately, some patients with Barrett's have very little heartburn and no warning, even though they have significant damage.

How does My Doctor Know?

Barrett's cannot be diagnosed by any blood tests or an x-ray. Screening for Barrett's esophagus requires a gastroscopy, or scope, examination to directly visualize the lower esophagus and determine if there is any damage. This is painlessly done under light sedation. During this exam, samples can also be taken to check for precancerous changes, or dysplasia.

Why Bother Checking For Barrett's?

The challenge is to identify patients with Barrett's esophagus before they develop cancer. If you have Barrett's and biopsies show precancerous cells, new techniques are available to monitor and help halt the process. Progression to cancer can often be prevented. But, it's estimated that only 5 percent of people with Barrett's are now diagnosed.

What Treatment Is Available?

Once Barrett's esophagus is identified, doctors have several treatment options available. The first goal is to stop acid reflux and prevent further damage from occurring. This can usually be accomplished with daily doses of medications such as Prilosec and Prevacid which markedly reduce your production of stomach acid. Treatment aids in the relief of symptoms and may also reduce the risk of forming a stricture, or ring of scar tissue, which is common in Barrett's and may cause problems swallowing.

You should know that successful treatment of the acid reflux does not cure the Barrett's. Even if symptoms are well controlled, the cancer risk remains and periodic scope examinations must be continued. Usually these are done every one to two years.

What If Dysplasia Is Found?

Biopsies taken during the scope test are sent for microscopic analysis by a trained doctor called a pathologist. The main thing we ask the pathologist to look for is "dysplasia." Dysplasia is a precancerous change (not cancer yet) which usually occurs before cancer ever develops. It can be thought of as an early warning signal and is often classified either as low grade or high grade dysplasia.

    Low grade dysplasia is seen most often and is less cause for concern. In this instance, reflux must be controlled and surveillance may need to be more frequent but there is no need for radical change in therapy. Over time, dysplasia may progress from low grade, to moderate, to high grade, then sometimes to cancer.

    If high grade dysplasia is found, the risk of cancer is much greater. Patients with high grade dysplasia need to be rescoped at more frequent intervals and additional biopsies obtained. If high grade dysplasia persists, there is a high risk of progression to cancer. In this circumstance, more aggressive treatment is needed. This might involve surgery to remove part of the esophagus which contains the abnormal area of Barrett's, even if a definite cancer is not found. The whole idea is to do something before cancer develops.

How About Surgery?

There are two types of surgery performed in cases of Barrett's. If no dysplasia is present and symptoms of acid reflux do not respond to intensive medical therapy, surgery may be necessary to retighten the loosened lower esophageal sphincter, thus preventing further acid damage. This operation does not remove the area of Barrett's which still must be periodically rebiopsied. In the past, this procedure required open surgery with a full incision and a prolonged recovery period. Newer "band-aid" techniques now allow a much simpler procedure with several mini-incisions and a shortened recovery period.

If the condition is identified at a later stage, patients may require surgery to actually remove the lower part of the esophagus and pull the stomach upward to the remaining portion. This is a more radical operation, but totally removes the area of Barrett's.

Are There Any Alternatives?

  • Photodynamic Therapy (PDT)
    In this procedure, special light-activated dyes are given by vein which makes the area of Barrett's especially sensitive to laser light. This allows selective destruction of the area of Barrett's lining without damaging the entire wall of the esophagus. The area becomes ulcerated and is treated with medication. In most cases, when the ulcer heals, it is replaced by the normal pale esophagus lining and not the abnormal stomach lining.
  • Thermal Ablative Therapy
    Other forms of ablation are being studied. One which holds promise is the use of a heater probe. This device is passed down through the center channel of a gastroscope. The tip has a computer controlled heating device that "cooks" the tissue it contacts. This device has been used for many years in the treatment of bleeding ulcers and is now being tested in patients with Barrett's. One great concern with these new destructive techniques is that not all of the Barrett's cells will be destroyed and some may hide under the newly formed lining with a potential for future cancer. Surveillance be continued after treatment.
  • Endoscopic Mucosal Resection (EMR)
    Another new procedure might be useful when the Barrett's changes only involve a short segment (less than 2 cm). Using the gastroscope and a suction device, the inner layer of a portion of the esophagus is cut away. This may allow normal cells to replace the Barrett's tissue. Early reports are encouraging.
  • Chemoprevention
    This refers to the exciting possibility that some medications taken by mouth may reduce the chances of Barrett's cells becoming dysplastic and developing into esophageal cancer. This research is very preliminary, but suggests that a daily 25,000 unit dose of the vitamin beta-carotene may be helpful. This dose is considered safe for long term use. In addition, animal studies suggest that aspirin and other arthritis drugs such as Clinoril, Vioxx, and Celebrex may confer some protection. For example, the risk of cancer was reduced 79% by Clinoril administration. All of these drugs can sometimes cause stomach ulcers, but these are effectively prevented by the acid reducing medication that is already being prescribed. This research is very exciting and suggests that chemoprevention may be a useful treatment option for the prevention of cancer.

Barrett's esophagus is a precancerous condition in which an abnormal lining grows up into the lower esophagus. This is usually a consequence of long-standing poorly controlled heartburn. Barrett's tissue does not belong there and for some reason increases the risk of cancer. Most often, the development of this type of cancer is preceded by findings of dysplasia on biopsy. Clinical studies have shown that screening by periodic "scope" examinations is clinically effective as well as cost effective.

If you have Barrett's Esophagus, you will require periodic monitoring by your physician. Follow your doctor's advice about how best to control your acid reflux. This may include lifestyle changes, medication, and/or surgery. The goal should be complete control of heartburn. Keep your appointments for regular endoscopy exams and biopsies to check for dysplasia.

Be reassured that most patients with Barrett's do not go on to develop cancer of the esophagus. By working with your doctor and having periodic examinations, you can best control the symptoms of acid reflux and help reduce your personal risk of esophageal cancer.

Text & Images Courtesy of Three Rivers Endoscopy Center
© Dr. Robert Fusco, Three Rivers Endoscopy Center, All Rights Reserved

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