What is Barrett's Esophagus? Overview, Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

What is Barrett’s Esophagus?

Tampa General Hospital’s Digestive Diseases Institute—an industry leader in treating gastrointestinal disorders—treats Barrett’s esophagus, a condition that can occur when stomach acid damages the esophageal lining (epithelium). Barrett’s esophagus is relatively rare, with the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK)* reporting that it likely affects between 1.6% and 6.8% of people.

Causes and Risk Factors of Barrett’s Esophagus

Barrett’s esophagus most commonly results from another gastrointestinal disorder known as gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD). There’s a circular band of muscle located at the bottom of the esophagus (the lower esophageal sphincter), and it opens to allow food and liquids to pass from the esophagus to the stomach. Normally, this sphincter closes once the swallowing process is complete, but with uncontrolled GERD, it remains open and allows stomach acid to back up into the esophagus.

In some people, repeated exposure to stomach acid can trigger the cellular structure of the esophageal lining to change, resulting in Barrett’s esophagus. Researchers are still working to determine exactly why this happens, but when it does, it can cause the esophageal lining to redden and thicken, resembling the tissue that lines the intestines. While esophageal tissue is normally pale pink and smooth, it will appear redder and coarser in someone with Barrett’s esophagus.

Having GERD is one of the largest risk factors for Barrett’s esophagus, but you may also have an increased risk of developing the disorder if:

  • You’re male.
  • You’re over age 50.
  • You have a family history of Barrett’s esophagus or esophageal cancer.
  • You’re overweight.
  • You have a history of smoking.

Signs and Symptoms of Barrett’s Esophagus

Barrett’s esophagus doesn’t produce any noticeable symptoms on its own. But because this condition typically results from GERD, someone with Barrett’s esophagus may experience GERD symptoms, which include:

  • Heartburn
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Feeling like there’s a lump in the throat
  • Regurgitating food or a sour-tasting liquid
  • Nausea

If you’ve been experiencing symptoms like these, it’s important to not delay seeking treatment, especially since people with Barrett’s esophagus have a higher risk of developing esophageal cancer. Early diagnosis and treatment of Barrett’s esophagus can help minimize your chances of developing the malignancy.

It’s important to note that only half of the people diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus experience the symptoms listed above—the other half report few, if any, acid reflux symptoms (this is commonly referred to as silent reflux). So, if you have reason to think that you might have Barrett’s esophagus, you should still reach out to a qualified medical provider regardless of whether you’re experiencing symptoms.

Diagnosing Barrett’s Esophagus

After conducting a physical examination and speaking with you about your symptoms and medical history, a doctor will likely perform an endoscopy to confirm a suspected Barrett’s esophagus diagnosis. This involves passing an endoscope (a thin tube with a light and a camera on the end) down your throat and into your esophagus, then using it to inspect the esophageal lining and perform a biopsy.

A pathologist will then examine the collected tissue sample to determine how much the cells have changed:

  • If Barrett’s esophagus is present but there are no signs of precancerous changes, the tissue will be classified as non-dysplastic metaplasia.
  • If there are some signs of precancerous changes, it will be classified as metaplasia with low-grade dysplasia.
  • If there are many signs of precancerous changes, it will be classified as metaplasia with high-grade dysplasia.

Barrett’s Esophagus Treatment

The recommended course of treatment for Barrett’s esophagus will depend on the patient’s overall health and how far their condition has progressed, with treatment options ranging from periodic endoscopies to surgery to remove the damaged portion of the esophagus. An experienced medical provider can recommend the treatment approach that’s best suited to your specific needs.

TGH’s Approach to Treating Barrett’s Esophagus

Whether you’re experiencing Barrett’s esophagus or any other condition affecting the digestive system, it’s important that you entrust your care to highly skilled gastroenterologists. That’s exactly why you should partner with Tampa General Hospital’s Digestive Diseases Institute for diagnosis and treatment. Based in Tampa, FL, we take a multidisciplinary approach to care and focus on developing customized treatment plans that will help patients achieve the best possible outcomes. We operate a GERD and Esophageal Surgery Center that offers tertiary and quaternary esophageal care for complex cases, and we’re proud to have been named one of the best hospitals for Gastroenterology and GI Surgery by U.S. News and World Report for 2023-24.

Contact Tampa General Hospital at (800) 822-3627 to schedule a consultation with one of the experienced providers at our GERD and Esophageal Surgery Center. Once we’ve learned about your condition and conducted any necessary testing, we’ll be able to determine whether you have Barrett’s esophagus and recommend next steps to take.

*National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK)