What is Barrett's oesophagus?

Barrett's oesophagus is when the cells lining the oesophagus - the tube that connects the mouth and the stomach - change to resemble the lining of the stomach, due to damage from acid reflux. This condition can potentially increase the risk of developing oesophageal cancer in the future. 

Cells

The fundamental unit of life; the simplest living unit that can exist, grow, and reproduce independently. The human body is composed of trillions of cells of many kinds.

Reflux

An abnormal, backwards flow of fluid within the body.

Causes

Barrett's oesophagus occurs when the lining of the oesophagus, which is sensitive to stomach acid, becomes chronically irritated due to repeated exposure to this harsh acid. Stomach acids travel into the oesophagus if there is heartburn, otherwise known as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). The lining of the oesophagus, which normally has pinkish, flat cells (squamous cells) to allow the easy passage of food, change with chronic exposure to stomach acids, into red, tall cells (columnar cells, also known as columnar epithelium) that secrete acid-repellent mucus, much like the lining of the stomach. This change in cell structure is known as metaplasia, and this defines Barrett's oesophagus. It commonly occurs at the lower portion of the oesophagus, where exposure to stomach acid is greatest; however, occasionally it can occur higher up.  

In certain cases, with ongoing exposure to stomach acids, the cells continue to change to become cancerous, i.e. oesophageal cancers. While the majority of people with Barrett's oesophagus will not develop oesophageal cancer, the potential is always there and the number of cases is increasing. 

A healthy oesophagus compared with Barrett's oesophagus. 

Cells

The fundamental unit of life; the simplest living unit that can exist, grow, and reproduce independently. The human body is composed of trillions of cells of many kinds.

Mucus

A thick, viscous liquid that is secreted for lubrication and to form a protective lining over certain tissues.

Reflux

An abnormal, backwards flow of fluid within the body.

Squamous cells

Thin, flat cells found in the skin and other linings in the body.

Risk factors

Risk factors for Barrett's oesophagus include:

  • Heartburn - this predisposes chronic stomach acid travelling into the oesophagus. Heartburn can be exacerbated by alcohol, spicy foods, peppermint, caffeine, lying flat, obesity and smoking;
  • Age - the average age of diagnosis with Barrett's oesophagus is 55 years;
  • Gender and ethnicity - Barrett's oesophagus is more common in white (Caucasian) men;
  • Smoking, and;
  • Metabolic syndrome - studies have found that Barrett's oesophagus is associated with metabolic syndrome, regardless of the presence of reflux symptoms. Metabolic syndrome is not a disease, but a collection of risk factors that occur at the same time. These are abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, high level of triglycerides, low level of good cholesterol (high density lipoprotein) and impaired fasting glucose.

Cholesterol

A type of fat produced by the body that is necessary for metabolism.

Reflux

An abnormal, backwards flow of fluid within the body.

Triglycerides

A fat or lipid that is composed of one glycerol molecule and three fatty acid molecules. Triglycerides are the most common fat in the blood and levels that are too high can increase the risk of conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Impaired fasting glucose

The state of high glucose level in the blood during periods of fasting, but which is not high enough to be classed as diabetes. Also known as pre-diabetes.

Cellular changes of Barrett's oesophagus

Intestinal metaplasia

The hallmark of Barrett's oesophagus is metaplasia, where squamous cells of the oesophagus change into columnar cells. The columnar cells resemble stomach or intestinal lining cells, which may offer some protection from acid reflux. However, with ongoing exposure to stomach acids, these cells can become abnormal, known as dysplasia. Dysplasia is a precancerous stage, which can progress to cancer or alternatively recover if risk factors are removed. 

Low-grade dysplasia

In low-grade dysplasia, the architecture of the Barrett's cells become more distorted. The cells appear larger and their pattern abnormal and irregular.

High-grade dysplasia

In high-grade dysplasia, the cellular disorganisation is even greater. The cells appear large and multi-layered. The risk of developing oesophageal cancer from this grade is quite high. 

Progression from a healthy oesophagus to Barrett's oesophagus. 

Cells

The fundamental unit of life; the simplest living unit that can exist, grow, and reproduce independently. The human body is composed of trillions of cells of many kinds.

Dysplasia

Precancerous cells that are distinguished from cancer cells by lacking the ability to invade other tissues or spread to other parts of the body.

Reflux

An abnormal, backwards flow of fluid within the body.

Squamous cells

Thin, flat cells found in the skin and other linings in the body.

Signs and symptoms

Barrett's oesophagus does not produce any symptoms; rather, symptoms are caused by acid reflux from the stomach, as part of heartburn. These include:

  • Difficulty or pain swallowing;
  • Recurring discomfort or burning in the chest, often following food or drinks;
  • Regurgitation of excessive saliva and/or food into the mouth, and;
  • Vomiting, weight loss and feeling full when eating.

Sometimes acid reflux has no symptoms, so metaplasia can be occurring silently. This can make Barrett's oesophagus difficult to diagnose.

Reflux

An abnormal, backwards flow of fluid within the body.

Methods for diagnosis

Gastroscopy (upper endoscopy)

During a gastroscopy procedure, you'll be sedated and a long, thin and flexible tube (endoscope) will be carefully fed down to the oesophagus. Imaging of the area will be carried out via a light and a small camera attached to the tube. Barrett's oesophagus tissue can appear pink or red compared to the usual pale-coloured oesophageal lining. Gastroscopy can be used to take a biopsy of any suspicious-looking areas for further diagnosis.

Biopsy

A biopsy is a tissue sample taken for microscopic examination by a pathologist in the laboratory to check for cancer and other diseases. For Barrett's oesophagus, the biopsy is taken during a gastroscopy and the pathologist will then determine if any cellular changes are present and check to make sure any of the abnormalities are not cancerous.

Twenty-four hour ambulatory pH monitoring

Ambulatory pH monitoring involves a very thin wire being threaded through your nose and into your oesophagus. It is attached to a small recording device that determines the acid levels in the lower oesophagus. Because symptoms can be minimal or non-existent in Barrett's oesophagus, the pH monitoring can help with diagnosing silent acid reflux and the effects of medications on reducing acid levels in the oesophagus. 

Pathologist

A doctor specialising in the microcopic study of disease, such as examining a tissue sample taken in a biopsy.

pH

A measure of how acidic or basic a solution is.

Reflux

An abnormal, backwards flow of fluid within the body.

Gastroscopy

A test that involves inserting a flexible scope down the throat to view the internal lining of the oesophagus (the feeding pipe), stomach and beginning of the intestines.

Types of treatment

Barrett's metaplasia and low-grade dysplasia is often treated with lifestyle changes, antireflux medications and follow-up gastroscopy. High-grade dysplasia can be treated with a number of gastroscopic or surgical options.

Lifestyle interventions

Reducing acid reflux into the oesophagus can help prevent or reduce the progression of Barrett's oesophagus. Acid reflux can be less severe if you avoid caffeine, alcohol, peppermint and spicy foods. Stopping smoking and reducing your weight if overweight or obese can also reduce acid reflux. Elevating the head of your bed with bricks can help to reduce acid reflux when lying down.

Acid reflux medication

Medications, such as proton pump inhibitors and/or histamine-2 blockers, which can decrease the amount of stomach acid produced, can be used to control symptoms, promote healing and reduce the risk of progression to dysplasia and oesophageal cancer.

Endoscopic therapy

Endoscopic therapy with endoscopic mucosal resection or radiofrequency ablation can be used in some cases of high-grade dysplasia. This is usually reserved for cases where the dysplasia has not spread into deeper layers of the oesophagus and there has been no spread to lymph nodes.

Endoscopic mucosal resection

Endoscopic mucosal resection is performed during an endoscopy. An instrument called a snare is used to remove the affected oesophageal tissue.

Radiofrequency ablation

Radiofrequency ablation and cryotherapy can be used in conjunction with endoscopic mucosal resection to destroy the remaining abnormal cells.

Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy uses liquid nitrogen or carbon dioxide to destroy cells.

Photodynamic therapy

Photodynamic therapy uses chemical agents called photosensitisers and a laser light to destroy abnormal cells.

Oesophagectomy

This is surgery to remove all or part of the oesophagus. It is generally reserved for extensive high-grade dysplasia or a confirmed cancer. If a cancer extends into the stomach, part of the stomach is removed, along with part of the oesophagus (oesophago-gastrectomy). The whole oesophagus might need to be removed (total oesophagectomy), in which case it may be replaced with part of the bowel.

Cells

The fundamental unit of life; the simplest living unit that can exist, grow, and reproduce independently. The human body is composed of trillions of cells of many kinds.

Dysplasia

Precancerous cells that are distinguished from cancer cells by lacking the ability to invade other tissues or spread to other parts of the body.

Lymph nodes

A small organ of the lymphatic system containing many immune cells. Lymph nodes, also known as lymph glands, are the sites where many interactions between immune cells and foreign materials occur.

Proton pump inhibitors

Medications that inhibit or reduce the activity of proton pumps (proteins that move protons, or hydrogen atoms, across cell membranes in the body). These medications can be used to reduce the production of gastric acid in order to treat peptic ulcers and heartburn.

Radiofrequency ablation

The use of radio waves as a heat source to kill cancer cells.

Reflux

An abnormal, backwards flow of fluid within the body.

Bowel

The part of the digestive tract that comprises the small and large intestines.

Gastroscopy

A test that involves inserting a flexible scope down the throat to view the internal lining of the oesophagus (the feeding pipe), stomach and beginning of the intestines.

Potential complications

Treatment side effects

One of the most common complications from treatment is stricture formation, which is the narrowing (stenosis) and tightening of the oesophagus due to scarring. The more of the oesophagus that has been subjected to treatment, the greater the risk of stenosis. Bleeding can occur from oesophageal endoscopic procedures and also from surgery. In some cases, bleeding can be severe due to the high density of blood vessels in the oesophagus. Nausea and mild discomfort can result from radiofrequency ablation. Pain-relief medication is usually required.

Barrett's oesophagus

Barrett's oesophagus can progress to oesophageal cancer. The type of cancer it causes is known as an adenocarcinoma.

Adenocarcinoma

Cancer that develops in glandular tissue.

Radiofrequency ablation

The use of radio waves as a heat source to kill cancer cells.

Prognosis

If caught before it progresses to cancer, treatment for Barrett's oesophagus has a very good prognosis. However, oesophageal cancer has a poor prognosis.

Prevention

The progress of Barrett's oesophagus can be reduced by limiting acid reflux into the oesophagus. Unfortunately, in some cases the acid reflux may not produce symptoms, so prevention may not be possible if the condition goes undiagnosed. You can reduce your risk by maintaining a healthy body weight, not smoking, avoiding foods and substances that worsen acid reflux and by taking medication if recommended by your doctor to lessen the damage caused by stomach acid.

Reflux

An abnormal, backwards flow of fluid within the body.