Fighting Barrett’s Esophagus

While over-the-counter medication can be a short-term fix for heartburn, chronic acid reflux can lead to Barrett's Esophagus.  An endoscopic exam can determine if a patient is at risk, and if so, can be part of the tool to remove pre-cancerous or cancerous cells. Photo by Bethany Turner

While over-the-counter medication can be a short-term fix for heartburn, chronic acid reflux can lead to Barrett’s Esophagus. An endoscopic exam can determine if a patient is at risk, and if so, can be part of the tool to remove pre-cancerous or cancerous cells. Photo by Bethany Turner

You only have to watch TV or read a magazine to know that “Acid Reflux” is a hot topic for many sufferers and drug companies. Acid Reflux is also known as GERD, or Gastric Esophageal Reflux Disease. If you suffer from this or have a friend or coworker chomping down Tums like candy, then read on. While it may seem that acid reflux is a normal daily occurrence, the disease itself has some high risk to your health.

Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid normally used to breakdown the food and beverages we consume splashes backwards out of the stomach and into the esophagus. Anatomy 101: The esophagus is the tube that carries food and liquids from your mouth to your stomach. Normally, a muscle ring at the far end of the esophagus where it joins the stomach acts as a gate to allow food to pass, then closes to prevent this backward flow. People who have acid reflux disease suffer when this “gate” does not close appropriately.

Symptoms of acid reflux include heartburn, pain or discomfort in your chest, difficulty swallowing, a burning sensation in your chest or throat, a chronic cough, nausea after eating, belching and bad breath. Less common symptoms include regurgitation, hoarseness, asthma or asthma-like symptoms, constant clearing of your throat and dental enamel erosions.  Some of these symptoms are very general and can be attributed to many causes. If you experience them greater than weekly, you need to consult your physician.

Chronic acid reflux or GERD puts you at risk for Barrett’s Esophagus. This disease is described as changes to the cells lining your esophagus. Left untreated, these cells become pre-cancerous and can progress to cancer of the esophagus, also known as esophageal adenocarcinoma. Cancer of the esophagus is one of the most rapidly rising forms of cancer in the US today, having experienced a six-fold increase since the 1970s. Treatment in late stages is very radical, involving surgical removal of the esophagus and creation of a new esophagus using part of the stomach. Sadly, this traditionally has not led to successful long-term life.

The average age for diagnosis of Barrett’s Esophagus is 50 years old. Men are twice as likely to develop the disease, and the incidence runs highest for Caucasian males. It has been estimated that 13 percent of people who are diagnosed with GERD will develop Barrett’s Esophagus. Diagnosis is done through biopsies of the esophageal tissue during an endoscopic  procedure called an EGD or esophageal-gastro-duodenoscopy. Since you cannot easily see inside your esophagus, it is important you contact your physician and arrange to be checked if you are experiencing the above symptoms.

Recently a new procedure has been shown to be highly effective in treating early stages of Barrett’s Esophagus. The procedure is done through the same endoscopic exam used to diagnose the condition. Radio-frequency ablation or tissue destruction with heat energy is used to kill the top layer of cells in the affected area over a series of treatments until the changes are gone. Currently, this procedure is being done with success at Dosher Memorial Hospital here in Southport!

Typically, you will experience some pain with swallowing or chest discomfort for a few days after the procedure, but many people I have talked with have not felt anything worse than their typical heartburn symptoms. In addition, every eight weeks you will return to determine if further ablation treatments are needed.

Common as it may seem, acid reflux is a disease that requires your attention. Please seek help from  your physician or health care provider if you are experiencing symptoms that are consistent with reflux. Over the counter medications may be helpful, but an endoscopic exam can save your life!

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