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Achalasia

Achalasia is a disorder of the esophagus, the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. This affects the ability of the esophagus to move food toward the stomach.

Alternative Names

Esophageal achalasia

Causes

A muscular ring at the point where the esophagus and stomach come together (lower esophageal sphincter) normally relaxes during swallowing. In people with achalasia, this muscle ring does not relax as well. In addition, the normal muscle activity of the esophagus (peristalsis) is reduced.

The reason for these problems is damage to the nerves of the esophagus.

Cancer of the esophagus or upper stomach and a parasite infection that causes Chagas disease may have symptoms like those of achalasia.

Achalasia is a rare disorder. It may occur at any age, but is most common in middle-aged or older adults. This problem may be inherited in some people.

Symptoms

  • Backflow (regurgitation) of food
  • Chest pain , which may increase after eating or may be felt in the back, neck, and arms
  • Cough
  • Difficulty swallowing liquids and solids
  • Heartburn
  • Unintentional weight loss

Exams and Tests

Physical examination may show signs of anemia or malnutrition .

Tests include:

Treatment

The approach to treatment is to reduce the pressure at the lower esophageal sphincter. Therapy may involve:

  • Injection with botulinum toxin (Botox). This may help relax the sphincter muscles, but any benefit wears off within a matter of weeks or months.
  • Medications, such as long-acting nitrates or calcium channel blockers, which can be used to relax the lower esophagus sphincter
  • Surgery (called an esophagomyotomy), which may be needed to decrease the pressure in the lower sphincter
  • Widening (dilation) of the esophagus at the location of the narrowing (done during esophagogastroduodenoscopy)

Your doctor can help you decide which treatment is best for your situation.

Outlook (Prognosis)

The outcomes of surgery and nonsurgical treatments are similar. Sometimes more than one treatment is necessary.

Possible Complications

  • Backflow (regurgitation) of acid or food from the stomach into the esophagus (reflux)
  • Breathing food contents into the lungs, which can cause pneumonia
  • Tearing (perforation) of the esophagus

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if:

  • You have difficulty swallowing or painful swallowing
  • Your symptoms continue even with treatment for achalasia

Prevention

Many of the causes of achalasia are not preventable. However, treatment of the disorder may help to prevent complications.

References

Falk GW, Katzka DA. Diseases of the esophagus. In: Goldman L, Shafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 140.

Updated: 2/18/2012

George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.


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