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Barrett's Esophagus: More Patients?

Precursor to Esophageal Cancer May Be More Common Than Thought

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 2, 2005 -- More people may be suffering from Barrett's esophagus than previously thought, according to the first-ever estimate of the prevalence of the condition.

Barrett's esophagus is the leading cause of esophageal cancer, which is one of the fastest growing cancers in the U.S. The condition causes symptoms such as heartburn and waking during the night due to heartburn pain and acid regurgitation.

Although the exact cause of Barrett's esophagus is unknown, researchers say people with chronic GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), obese people, men, and Caucasians are at increased risk of developing the disease. Find Tips for Sleeping Safely Without HeartburnFind Tips for Sleeping Safely Without Heartburn.

Researchers say Barrett's esophagus often occurs in people who suffer from GERD. But some people with the disease do not show symptoms, and it often goes undiagnosed until it has already progressed to esophageal cancer. Therefore, it has been difficult to accurately estimate the prevalence of the disease.

"Barrett's esophagus is associated with one of the most rapidly increasing cancers in the Western world and to this point, data on the prevalence of the disease in the general population have been unavailable," says researcher Jukka Ronkainen, MD, of the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, in a news release. "This Swedish-based study has helped lay the foundation for researching the true prevalence of Barrett's and could serve as a basis for future studies in different communities."

Heartburn-Related Disorder May Be on the Rise

In the study, published in Gastroenterology, researchers surveyed nearly 3,000 residents of two neighboring communities in northern Sweden.

After collecting health information about the residents, 1,000 people were selected to undergo an upper endoscopy (examination of the esophagus) to determine if they had Barrett's esophagus.

The results showed that nearly 2% of the general Swedish population tested had Barrett's esophagus, a rate that if similar to the U.S. would translate to about 3 million Americans.

Researchers found Barrett's esophagus was nearly twice as common in people with symptoms of reflux, such as heartburn, and those with esophagitis (inflammation of the esophagus) than those who did not have these conditions. Other factors that increased the likelihood of developing the disease were alcohol use and smoking.

However, the study also showed that 40% of those diagnosed with Barrett's esophagus had no symptoms of the condition, which means screening only people with GERD-type symptoms for the disease would miss a significant portion of those affected.

"We hope our study findings provide more than just a basis for screening initiatives, but we also hope it raises awareness among patients and physicians of how common Barrett's esophagus is in the general population," says Ronkainen. "Those people who present with other Barrett's symptoms sans reflux should not be discounted as potentially having the disease."

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