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Esophageal Spasm


Topic Overview

What is esophageal spasm?

Esophageal spasms are irregular, uncoordinated, and sometimes powerful contractions of the esophagus, the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. Normally, contractions of the esophagus are coordinated, moving the food through the esophagusClick here to see an illustration. and into the stomach.

There are two main types of esophageal spasm:

  • Diffuse esophageal spasm. This type of spasm is an irregular, uncoordinated squeezing of the muscles of the esophagus. This can prevent food from reaching the stomach, leaving it stuck in the esophagus.
  • Nutcracker esophagus. This type of spasm squeezes the esophagus in a coordinated way, the same way food is moved down the esophagus normally. But the squeezing is very strong. These contractions move food through the esophagus but can cause severe pain.

You can have both types of esophageal spasm.

Esophageal spasms are uncommon. Often, symptoms that may suggest an esophageal spasm are the result of another condition such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or achalasia, a problem with the nervous system in which the muscles of the esophagus and the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) don't work properly. Anxiety or panic attacks can also cause similar symptoms.

What causes esophageal spasm?

The cause of esophageal spasm is unknown. Many doctors believe it results from a disruption of the nerve activity that coordinates the swallowing action of the esophagus. In some people, very hot or very cold foods may trigger an episode.

What are the symptoms?

Most people with this condition have chest pain that may spread outward to the arms, back, neck, or jaw. This pain can feel similar to a heart attack. If you have chest pain, you should be evaluated by a doctor as soon as possible to rule out or treat cardiac disease.

Other symptoms include difficulty or inability to swallow food or liquid, pain with swallowing, the feeling that food is caught in the center of the chest, and a burning sensation in the chest (heartburn).

How is esophageal spasm diagnosed?

Your doctor can often find out the cause of esophageal spasm from your medical history by asking you a series of questions. These include questions about what foods or liquids trigger symptoms, where it feels like food gets stuck, other symptoms or conditions you may have, and whether you are taking medicines for them.

The diagnosis can be confirmed with tests, including esophagus tests (such as esophageal manometry) or a barium swallow. Esophageal manometry uses a small tube attached to instruments (transducers) that measure pressure. A barium swallow is done using X-rays.

Other tests may be done to find out whether chest pain may be caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), the abnormal backflow (reflux) of food, stomach acid, and other digestive juices from the stomach into the esophagus.

How is it treated?

Treatment for esophageal spasm includes treating other conditions that may make esophageal spasms worse, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD is usually treated with changes to diet and lifestyle and medicines to reduce the amount of acid in the stomach.

Here are some things to try:

  • Change your eating habits.
    • It's best to eat several small meals instead of two or three large meals.
    • After you eat, wait 2 to 3 hours before you lie down. Late-night snacks aren't a good idea.
    • Chocolate, mint, and alcohol can make GERD worse. They relax the valve between the esophagus and the stomach.
    • Spicy foods, foods that have a lot of acid (like tomatoes and oranges), and coffee can make GERD symptoms worse in some people. If your symptoms are worse after you eat a certain food, you may want to stop eating that food to see if your symptoms get better.
  • Do not smoke or use smokeless tobacco.
  • If you have GERD symptoms at night, raise the head of your bed 6 in. (15 cm) to 8 in. (20 cm) by putting the frame on blocks or placing a foam wedge under the head of your mattress. (Adding extra pillows does not work.)
  • Do not wear tight clothing around your middle.
  • Lose weight if you need to. Losing just 5 to 10 pounds can help.

If lifestyle changes alone aren't enough to help GERD, your doctor may suggest you try medicines that reduce stomach acid. Over-the-counter medicines include:

  • Antacids, such as Maalox, Mylanta, or Tums.
  • Stronger acid reducers, such as famotidine (for example, Pepcid), ranitidine (for example, Zantac), or omeprazole (for example, Prilosec).

Spasms themselves may be treated directly with medicines such as nitrates and calcium channel blockers to relax the muscles of the esophagus. But these medicines are not always effective. Your doctor may also recommend certain types of antidepressant medicines. Even though you may not be depressed, these medicines can help with the pain.

Treating anxiety with relaxation and controlled breathing exercises may also help to reduce symptoms.

In rare cases, surgery is used to treat esophageal spasm. The surgeon cuts the muscles along the lower esophagus. This procedure is usually done only in serious cases that do not respond to other therapies.

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