The esophagus Throat and Esophagus The throat (pharynx—see also Throat) lies behind and below the mouth. When food and fluids leave the mouth, they pass through the throat. Swallowing of food and fluids begins voluntarily and... read more is the hollow tube that leads from the throat (pharynx) to the stomach. (See also Overview of the Esophagus Overview of the Esophagus The esophagus is the hollow tube that leads from the throat (pharynx) to the stomach. Food does not just fall through the esophagus into the stomach. The walls of the esophagus propel food to... read more .)
In this disorder, the normal propulsive contractions that move food through the esophagus are replaced periodically by nonpropulsive contractions or excessive muscular contractions (hyperdynamia) that do not move food through the esophagus.
How the Esophagus Works
The exact cause of esophageal spasm is not known but is suspected to be a nerve defect.
Sometimes, esophageal spasm does not cause any symptoms.
When it does cause symptoms, muscle spasms throughout the esophagus typically are felt as chest pain Chest Pain Chest pain is a very common complaint. Pain may be sharp or dull, although some people with a chest disorder describe their sensation as discomfort, tightness, pressure, gas, burning, or aching... read more under the breastbone coinciding with difficulty swallowing Difficulty Swallowing Some people have difficulty swallowing (dysphagia). In dysphagia, foods and/or liquids do not move normally from the throat (pharynx) to the stomach. People feel as though food or liquids become... read more (dysphagia) liquids (especially those that are very hot or cold) and solids.
Esophageal spasm also may cause severe pain without swallowing difficulty. This pain, often described as a squeezing pain under the breastbone, may accompany exercise or exertion, making it difficult for a doctor to distinguish it from angina Angina Angina is temporary chest pain or a sensation of pressure that occurs while the heart muscle is not receiving enough oxygen. A person with angina usually has discomfort or pressure beneath the... read more (chest pain stemming from heart disease).
Because the chest pain of esophageal spasm is similar to that of angina Angina Angina is temporary chest pain or a sensation of pressure that occurs while the heart muscle is not receiving enough oxygen. A person with angina usually has discomfort or pressure beneath the... read more (chest pain resulting from poor blood flow to the heart), doctors do tests to rule out angina. Tests may include electrocardiography Electrocardiography Electrocardiography (ECG) is a quick, simple, painless procedure in which the heart’s electrical impulses are amplified and recorded. This record, the electrocardiogram (also known as an ECG)... read more (ECG), exercise stress testing Stress Testing Stressing the heart (by exercise or by use of stimulant drugs to make the heart beat faster and more forcibly) can help identify coronary artery disease. In coronary artery disease, blood flow... read more , or other tests.
Doctors do a barium swallow X-Ray Studies of the Digestive Tract X-rays often are used to evaluate digestive problems. Standard x-rays (plain x-rays) do not require any special preparation (see Plain X-Rays). These x-rays usually can show a blockage or paralysis... read more . In this test, people are given barium in a liquid before x-rays are taken. The barium outlines the esophagus, making abnormalities easier to see. This test may show that the barium does not move normally down the esophagus and that some of the contractions of the esophageal wall are uncoordinated and do not move the barium.
Pressure measurements by manometry Manometry Manometry is measurement of pressure within various parts of the digestive tract. People must not eat or drink anything after midnight before the test. In this test, a flexible tube with pressure... read more (a test in which a tube placed in the esophagus measures the pressure of contractions) provide the most sensitive and detailed analysis of the spasms.
Esophageal spasm is often difficult to treat. Calcium channel blockers such as nifedipine may relieve the symptoms by relaxing the muscles of the esophagus. Tricyclic antidepressants are also used to relax muscles and may also be given.
Other drugs such as nitroglycerin, long-acting nitrates, and drugs with anticholinergic effects Anticholinergic: What Does It Mean? Drugs, the most common medical intervention, are an important part of medical care for older people. Without drugs, many older people would function less well or die at an earlier age. Older... read more (such as dicyclomine) are less successful.
If drugs do not help, a trial of botulinum toxin injections into the lower esophageal sphincter may be tried.
Some people have symptoms that are severe and difficult to treat. Sometimes, a surgeon may cut the muscle layer along the full length of the esophagus (myotomy). Alternatively, a gastroenterologist may cut this muscle layer during endoscopy.