The natural history of Barrett's esophagus (BE) is difficult to quantify because, by definition, it should describe the course of the condition if left untreated. Pragmatically, we assume that patients with BE will receive symptomatic treatment with acid suppression, usually a proton pump inhibitor, to treat their heartburn. This paper describes the development of complications of stricture, ulcer, dysplasia and adenocarcinoma from this standpoint. Controversies over the definition of BE and its implications in clinical practice are presented. The presence of intestinal metaplasia and its relevance to cancer risk is discussed, and the need to measure the extent of the Barrett's epithelium (long and short segments) using the Prague guidelines is emphasized. Guidelines and international consensus over the diagnosis and management of BE are being regularly updated. The need for expert consensus is important due to the lack of randomized trials in this area. After searching the literature, we have tried to collate the important studies regarding progression of Barrett's to dysplasia and adenocarcinoma. No therapeutic studies yet reported show a clear reduction in the development of cancer in BE. The effect of pharmacological and surgical intervention on the natural history of Barrett's is a subject of ongoing research, including the Barrett's Oesophagus Surveillance Study and the aspirin and esomeprazole cancer chemoprevention trial with interesting results. The geographical variation and the wide range of outcomes highlight the difficulty of providing an individualized risk profile to patients with BE. Future studies on the interaction of genome wide abnormalities in Barrett's and their interaction with environmental factors may allow individualization of the risk of cancer developing in BE.
Keywords: Adenocarcinoma; Barrett’s esophagus; Columnar lined esophagus; Dysplasia; Gastroesophageal reflux; Surgery.