The main cause of Barrett's esophagus is thought to be an adaptation to chronic acid exposure from reflux esophagitis. The incidence of esophageal adenocarcinoma has increased substantially in the Western world in recent years. The condition is found in 5–15% of patients who seek medical care for heartburn (gastroesophageal reflux disease), although a large subgroup of patients with Barrett's esophagus do not have symptoms. Diagnosis requires endoscopy (more specifically, esophagogastroduodenoscopy, a procedure in which a fibreoptic cable is inserted through the mouth to examine the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum) and biopsy. The cells of Barrett's esophagus, after biopsy, are classified into four general categories: nondysplastic, low-grade dysplasia, high-grade dysplasia, and frank carcinoma. High-grade dysplasia and early stages of adenocarcinoma can be treated by endoscopic resection and new endoscopic therapies such as radiofrequency ablation, whereas advanced stages (submucosal) are generally advised to undergo surgical treatment. Nondysplastic and low-grade patients are generally advised to undergo annual observation with endoscopy, with radiofrequency ablation as a therapeutic option. In high-grade dysplasia, the risk of developing cancer might be at 10% per patient-year or greater.
Those with the eating disorder bulimia are more likely to develop Barrett’s esophagus because bulimia can cause severe acid reflux, and because purging also floods the esophagus with acid.
The change from normal to premalignant cells that indicate Barrett's esophagus does not cause any particular symptoms. Barrett's esophagus, however, is associated with these symptoms:
The risk of developing Barrett's esophagus is increased by central obesity (vs. peripheral obesity). The exact mechanism is unclear. The difference in distribution of fat among men (more central) and women (more peripheral) may explain the increased risk in males.