Barrett’s esophagus is a condition in which the esophagus actively tries to protects itself from erosion caused by chronic acid reflux. Cells in the lining of the esophagus transform into tissue similar to the type that lines the stomach. This tissue alteration results in a greater risk of developing esophageal adenocarcinoma, a dangerous cancer that is rising in incidence.
Barrett’s esophagus can be the result of chronic gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or chronic heartburn. GERD and garden-variety heartburn are caused by stomach acid traveling up through a weak lower esophageal sphincter (LES), the muscle that acts as a valve between the stomach and the esophagus. About 20 percent of U.S. adults experience GERD at least once a week and thus are at risk of developing Barrett’s esophagus. If you have symptoms of chronic heartburn that lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications are not effectively treating, make an appointment to talk to your Gastrointestinal Associates physician about treatment options.
Gastroenterologists recommend treatment of GERD symptoms to prevent or mitigate the growth of the stomach tissue into the esophagus, thereby lessening the effects of Barrett’s esophagus or avoiding it altogether. Prescription and over-the-counter medicines help prevent excess acid production and relieve discomfort. Lifestyle changes can also reduce the frequency and severity of heartburn or GERD.
Lifestyle modifications that can help alleviate GERD include not smoking cigarettes or using tobacco; limiting consumption of alcohol and fatty or acidic foods; and not eating less than two hours before lying down. Elevating the head of the bed frame several inches can help use gravity to prevent the flow of acid into the esophagus.
“One in 10 patients with chronic reflux develops Barrett’s esophagus, which in itself is not life-threatening. However, a small percentage of people who have Barrett’s will develop esophageal adenocarcinoma, a very deadly cancer,” Dr. Bergein Overholt, founder of Knoxville’s Gastrointestinal Associates, was quoted as saying in response to a 2009 article in the New England Journal of Medicine about treatment options for Barrett’s esophagus.
If your GIA physician finds Barrett’s esophagus tissue, one treatment option is radiofrequency ablation. This outpatient treatment applies high frequency radio waves to the esophageal lining where the precancerous tissue is located. The waves cause a thermal injury that destroys the pre-cancerous cells and allows for normal cells to re-grow, returning the esophagus to its original appearance.
Radiofrequency ablation is an alternative to traditional surgical treatment, which involves partial removal of the esophagus. Gastrointestinal Associates was a frontrunner in radiofrequency ablation in 2009 and one of the few gastrointestinal practices involved in the research to perfect it as an alternative to more radical/debilitating surgery methods.