Barrett’s oesophagus is caused by reflux of stomach acid and bile into the oesophagus (the long, muscular tube connecting your mouth and stomach causing irritation and inflammation. This is known medically as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD or GERD).

Barrett’s oesophagus is a precancerous condition. If untreated, there is a small but real chance that it will lead to oesophageal cancer.

In Barrett’s oesophagus, the lining of the bottom part of the oesophagus changes from being pink, like the lining of the mouth, to red, like the lining of the bowel. This happens because it protects the oesophagus from the damaging effects of acid reflux, which are associated with symptoms of GORD such as heartburn. Most people with Barrett’s oesophagus have bad reflux but are relatively free of symptoms.

GORD (or GERD as it is often known) is common, but only one in 10 people with acid reflux or heartburn symptoms develop Barrett’s oesophagus. This condition also causes no problems for 9 out of every 10 people who develop it.

Unfortunately, without treatment the remaining one in 10 people with Barrett’s oesophagus could eventually develop oesophageal cancer. This happens in three stages:

  • The first is the development of low-grade dysplasia: which refers to an abnormal collection of cells that are not currently cancerous but could turn cancerous at a later date
  • Development of high-grade dysplasia can follow: the abnormalities in the cells arise at a faster rate, and the cells start to divide faster.
  • Oesophageal cancer: the cells of the oesophagus divide out of control, and can spread to other sites of the body.

Not everyone moves through all three stages; most people with low-grade dysplasia will not get oesophageal cancer. It is thought that half the people with high-grade dysplasia will develop oesophageal cancer.

However, the risk is there, but it can be reduced if the precancerous cells in the oesophagus are destroyed at an early stage. This is now possible using a new treatment; HALO radiofrequency ablation, which is approved as an effective treatment by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE).