Pathology dictionary

Intestinal metaplasia

What does intestinal metaplasia mean?

Intestinal metaplasia is a non-cancerous change that happens when the cells normally found in a tissue are damaged and are replaced by cells normally found in the small intestine (small bowel).

Although intestinal metaplasia is a non-cancerous change, in some areas of the body it is associated with a small risk of developing cancer in the future. The risk of cancer associated with this change is higher if another type of change called dysplasia is also seen in the same tissue.

Where in the body does intestinal metaplasia happen?

Intestinal metaplasia can develop in any type of tissue although it is most commonly diagnosed in the esophagus and stomach. In the esophagus, this change is also called Barretts esophagus.

Why does intestinal metaplasia happen?

Intestinal metaplasia often develop after many years of ongoing injury to a tissue. In the esophagus, the injury is caused by acid from the stomach moving back up into the esophagus. The acid damages the cells that normally cover the inside surface of the esophagus.

In the stomach, the injury is usually caused by a bacteria called Helicobacter that infects the stomach and damages the cells that cover the inside surface of the stomach.

How does a pathologist make the diagnosis of intestinal metaplasia?

Pathologists make this diagnosis after examining a sample of tissue under the microscope. No other special tests are usually required to make the diagnosis. If you have been diagnosed with acid reflux disease (GERD) or Helicobacter infection, your doctor may remove a small sample of tissue in a procedure called a biopsy and send it to a pathologist to look for intestinal metaplasia.

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