Achalasia

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Achalasia facts

  • Achalasia is a rare disease of the muscle of the lower esophageal body and the lower esophageal sphincter.
  • The cause of achalasia is unknown; however, there is degeneration of the esophageal muscles and, more importantly, the nerves that control the muscles.
  • Common symptoms of achalasia include difficulty in swallowing, chest pain, and regurgitation of food and liquids.
  • Complications of achalasia include lung problems and loss of weight.
  • Achalasia may increase the risk of cancer of the esophagus, but this not well established.
  • Achalasia can be diagnosed by X-ray, endoscopy, or esophageal manometry.
  • Treatments for achalasia include oral medications, dilation or stretching of the esophagus, surgery, and injection of muscle-relaxing medicines (botulinum toxin) directly into the esophagus.

What is achalasia?

Achalasia is a rare disease of the muscle of the esophagus (swallowing tube). The term achalasia means "failure to relax" and refers to the inability of the lower esophageal sphincter (a ring of muscle situated between the lower esophagus and the stomach) to open and let food pass into the stomach. As a result, patients with achalasia have difficulty in swallowing food.

How does the normal esophagus function?

The esophagus has three functional parts. The uppermost part is the upper esophageal sphincter, a specialized ring of muscle that forms the upper end of the tubular esophagus and separates the esophagus from the throat. The upper sphincter remains closed most of the time to prevent food in the main part of the esophagus from backing up into the throat. The main part of the esophagus is referred to as the body of the esophagus, a long, muscular tube approximately 20 cm (8 in) in length. The third functional part of the esophagus is the lower esophageal sphincter, a ring of specialized esophageal muscle at the junction of the esophagus with the stomach. Like the upper sphincter, the lower sphincter remains closed most of the time to prevent food and acid from backing up into the body of the esophagus from the stomach.

The upper sphincter relaxes with swallowing to allow food and saliva to pass from the throat into the esophageal body. The muscle in the upper esophagus just below the upper sphincter then contracts, squeezing food and saliva further down into the esophageal body. The ring-like contraction of the muscle progresses down the body of the esophagus, propelling the food and saliva towards the stomach. (The progression of the muscular contraction through the esophageal body is referred to as a peristaltic wave.). By the time the peristaltic wave reaches the lower sphincter, the sphincter has opened, and the food passes into the stomach.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 1/7/2014

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Achalasia

Achalasia Treatment

Treatments for achalasia include:

  • oral medications that help to relax the lower esophageal sphincter such as nitrates (for example, isosorbide dinitrate [Isordil]) and calcium channel blockers (for example, nifedipine [Procardia] and verapamil [Calan]);

  • dilation (stretching of the lower esophageal sphincter);

  • esophagomyotomy (surgery to cut the sphincter); and

  • the injection of botulinum toxin (Botox) into the sphincter.

All four of these treatments reduce the pressure within the lower esophageal sphincter to allow easier passage of food from the esophagus into the stomach.

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