Gerd Complications

GERD complications were thrust into the media spotlight when researchers discovered that Barrett’s esophagus was a risk factor for cancer of the esophagus. While Barrett’s esophagus is one of the possible GERD complications, the risk of developing esophagus cancer remains low for the majority of GERD patients. Other GERD complications are much more common.

Esophagitis

GERD complications are caused by chronic exposure of the esophagus to stomach acid. Esophagitis, or inflammation of the esophagus, is often the result of stomach acid irritation. In some cases, esophagitis can cause the esophagus to bleed.

Esophagitis is responsible for other GERD complications, such as esophageal ulcers. Just as stomach ulcers occur when the stomach lining is damaged, esophageal ulcers occur when acid damages the lining of the esophagus.

Esophageal ulcers, in turn, can lead to even more GERD complications. An esophageal ulcer heals slowly and often recurs on the same portion of the esophagus. Once healed, esophageal ulcers can leave scar tissue, which can cause esophageal stricture, one of the most serious GERD complications.

Stricture and GERD Complications

Chronic exposure to stomach acid damages the lining of the esophagus. As the lining heals, scar tissue forms inside the esophagus, narrowing the passageway. Esophageal stricture occurs when the esophagus narrows, making swallowing difficult.

Stricture can be progressive, gradually increasing the severity of swallowing difficulties (dysphagia) when eating solid food.

GERD Complications and the Lungs

GERD complications can affect the respiratory system. Although the exact relationship between GERD and lung disorders is unclear, asthma, pulmonary fibrosis (scarring of lung tissue) and chronic cough are all worsened by the presence of GERD. Some evidence suggests that GERD may cause these lung complications in some people.

Barrett’s Esophagus

Barrett’s esophagus is a GERD complication caused by long-term acid reflux, and has been linked to esophagus cancer. Barrett’s esophagus describes the replacement of normal esophagus tissue by a type of tissue resembling that found in the intestine. This exchange from one tissue type to another is called metaplasia and, in this case “intestinal metaplasia.”

Barrett’s esophagus is most common in Caucasian males over the age of fifty. Like most GERD complications, Barrett’s esophagus takes time to develop. It usually occurs after five to ten years of GERD-related acid reflux. Only ten percent of people with GERD develop Barrett’s esophagus.

Esophagus Cancer and Barrett’s Esophagus

Esophagus cancer is the most feared GERD complication. Fortunately, esophagus cancer is also one of the least common GERD complications. The presence of Barrett’s esophagus increases the risk of a specific variety of esophagus cancer called esophageal adenocarcinoma.

Esophagus cancer risks are increased if Barrett’s esophagus is accompanied by severe GERD symptoms, or if acid reflux attacks are unusually frequent or of long duration.

Although the risk of esophagus cancer is higher than normal for people with Barrett’s esophagus, keep in mind that the risk of cancer is still very small. Barrett’s esophagus occurs in only ten percent of GERD cases. One percent people with Barrett’s esophagus go on to develop esophagus cancer.

GERD is considered an esophagus cancer risk only if Barrett’s esophagus has developed. Otherwise, a person with GERD is at no more risk of esophagus cancer than the rest of the population. Other GERD complications, such as ulcers and stricture, occur with much greater frequency than cancer.

Resources

Beers, M.H.