Barrett's esophagus is a condition in which the normal lining of the esophagus - the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach - is replaced with a lining similar to that of the stomach. This change happens at the bottom of the esophagus, where it meets the stomach. Barrett's esophagus is usually caused by long-term heartburn, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The condition occurs in about 10% of people who have chronic heartburn.
The condition causes no symptoms on its own, but increases a person's chances of getting a rare type of cancer of the esophagus called esophageal adenocarcinoma.
The stomach has a protective lining to keep it from being damaged by the acidic fluids used in digestion. Because the esophagus does not have this protective lining, it is harmed when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, as in heartburn or GERD. In Barrett's esophagus, the lining at the bottom of the esophagus changes to be more like the lining of the stomach and small intestine. Doctors do not know exactly why the lining of the esophagus changes, but it may be a defensive mechanism to protect the esophagus against further harm from stomach acids.
Barrett's esophagus is diagnosed by taking a sample of the tissue in the esophagus. This is done during an upper GI endoscopy. The doctor uses an endoscope - a tiny video camera mounted on a thin, flexible tube with a light at the end - to look inside your esophagus and stomach. The doctor inserts the endoscope through your mouth, and guides it into the esophagus, where he or she uses a tiny tool to take a sample (biopsy) for later examination under a microscope.
You will be given medication to make you relaxed and drowsy during the procedure, which only takes 15-20 minutes.
Because Barrett's esophagus is most often caused by heartburn or GERD, a doctor's first goal is to treat those conditions through lifestyle changes or medication.
If the biopsy taken during the upper GI endoscopy shows cells that may become cancer, the doctor may attempt to destroy the abnormal lining in the esophagus by laser, heat, or other means. This treatment is called ablation, and is done with an endoscope. The goal is to have the normal lining of the esophagus regrow over the destroyed abnormal lining.