Barrett's esophagus is a condition in which the esophagus, the muscular tube that carries food and saliva from the mouth to the stomach, changes so that some of its lining is replaced by a type of tissue similar to that normally found in the intestine. This process is called intestinal metaplasia.
While Barrett's esophagus may cause no symptoms itself, a small number of people with this condition develop a relatively rare, but often deadly, type of cancer of the esophagus called esophageal adenocarcinoma. Barrett's esophagus is associated with the very common condition gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD.
Having occasional liquid or gas reflux is considered normal. When it happens frequently, particularly when you are not trying to belch, and when it causes other symptoms, it is then considered a medical problem or possibly a disease. However, it may not be serious enough to require a physician's attention.
The stomach produces acid and enzymes to digest food. When this mixture refluxes into the esophagus more frequently than normal, or for a longer period of time than normal, it produces symptoms. These symptoms, often called acid reflux, are usually described by people as heartburn, indigestion, or "gas." The symptoms typically consist of a burning sensation below and behind the lower part of the breastbone or sternum. Almost everyone has experienced these symptoms at least once, typically after overeating.
GERD symptoms can also result from being overweight, eating certain types of foods, or being pregnant. In most people, GERD symptoms last only a short time and require no treatment at all. More persistent symptoms are often quickly relieved by over-the-counter acid-reducing agents such as antacids. The exact causes of Barrett's esophagus are not known, but it is thought to be caused in part by the same factors that cause GERD. Although people who do not have heartburn can have Barrett's esophagus, it is found about three to five times more often in people with this condition. Barrett's esophagus does not cause symptoms itself and is important only because it seems to precede the development of a particular kind of cancer, as mentioned above, esophageal adenocarcinoma. The risk of developing adenocarcinoma is 30 to 125 times higher in people who have Barrett's esophagus than in people who do not.
Barrett's esophagus, like Lupus, has no cure, short of surgical removal of the esophagus, which is a serious operation. Surgery is recommended only for people who have a high risk of developing cancer or who already have it. Most physicians recommend treating GERD with acid-blocking drugs, since this is sometimes associated with improvement in the extent of the Barrett's tissue. Several different experimental approaches are under study. One attempts to see whether destroying the Barrett's tissue by heat or other means through an endoscope can eliminate the condition. .Barrett's esophagus is diagnosed by upper gastrointestinal endoscopy and biopsy and people who have Barrett's esophagus are advised to have periodic esophageal examinations.
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