Have you ever felt a tight, squeezing pain in your chest? Have you ever felt as if there was something stuck in your throat, making it difﬁcult to eat and drink? These symptoms may be caused by esophageal spasms.
Many people have never heard of esophageal spasms, and so may be suffering from the symptoms without realizing that they have a problem that can be treated if they see a doctor.
Esophageal spasms can be easy to treat, so the faster you can ﬁgure out you have them, the faster you can make them go away. If any of these symptoms ﬁt you, make sure to go to a doctor in order to get properly diagnosed and cared for.
What Are Esophageal Spasms?
The esophagus is a tube that brings food from the mouth to the stomach. To do this, it is lined with muscles that, through contracting and expanding, are able to push the food and drinks down the tube.
Esophageal spasms occur when the muscles lining the esophagus contract and expand without the presence of food or liquid, or in a way that does not push the food down, but instead pushes it back up.
These spasms are fairly rare, and even when they do happen, it is often not really a problem. In many cases, these spasms occur one or two times, and do not happen again. However, there are some cases in which the spams occur regularly, and can be difﬁcult to deal with.
What Are the Symptoms of Esophageal Spasms?
If you think you may be experiencing esophageal spasms, check to see if you have the symptoms.
These ﬁve symptoms are the most common:
1- The most prominent and distinct symptom is chest pain, speciﬁcally chest pain that is tight and squeezing. With esophageal spasms, it is typically intense, and sometimes feels like a burning sensation as well.
2- The chest pain sometimes spreads, so that it can be felt throughout the upper body, arms, and even in the jaw.
3- The spasms can also make swallowing food and drinks difﬁcult. In some cases, only certain foods or drinks are difﬁcult to swallow.
4- Similarly, the spasms can make it feel as though there is something stuck in the throat, or as if the throat has closed up.
5- Esophageal spasms may also cause regurgitation, which is when food comes back up the esophagus.
Esophageal spasms are rare, but the symptoms can also be seen in other serious health problems, such as cardiac arrest. So, if you experience any of the symptoms above, it is a good idea to see a doctor just to be safe.
How Are Esophageal Spasms Diagnosed?
The doctor will most likely begin by asking you questions to determine what your symptoms could mean. These may include, “Does anything seem to cause the pain?” “What sort of chest pain do you feel?” “Where do you feel the chest pain?” “Where do you feel like your throat is blocked?” “Have you taken any medication for the symptoms?” “How often do you experience your symptoms?”
Before you go to the doctor, prepare for these questions. It may help to write down your symptoms, what (if anything) can trigger the symptoms, what medicines or supplements you have taken and any changes in your life that may have caused stress.
After these questions, the doctor will conﬁrm that the symptoms are caused by esophageal spasms using some tests.
One common test for esophagus problems is called esophageal manometry. In this test, the doctor uses a tube that has transducers on it, which allows it to measure pressure. This test checks the strength of the muscles lining the esophagus, as well as the way that they work.
Another common test to determine esophageal spasms is called a barium swallow, or esophagram. Basically, the patient must water mixed with what is called barium contrast material.
Then, the doctor is able to follow the mixture as it travels through the esophagus using x-ray images. That way, they can see exactly where the problem with the esophagus is.
The other test that will probably be done is called an endoscopy. In this test, the doctor sends a small tube down the throat that has a camera on it, in order to see possible problems in the esophagus.
From there, if they do see a problem, it is possible that they will pull out a piece of tissue to do further testing on, which is called a biopsy.
Along with these, other tests will be done in order to rule out other possible causes. Most likely, these will include a pH test, which determines the level of acid in the esophagus to see if the chest pain is caused by stomach acid.
What Causes Esophageal Spasms?
It is not yet known for sure what causes esophageal spasms. Most doctors agree that it has to do with the nerves that control the esophagus muscles not being able to work properly and coordinate the movements of the muscles.
Doctors also believe that it may be associated with gastroesophageal reﬂux disease, or GERD, which causes acid and food to be regurgitated from the stomach into the esophagus. It has also been determined that people are at higher risk of esophageal spasms if they:
- Are over 60 years old
- Have anxiety or depression
- Are drinking red wine
- Are eating or drinking something either very hot or very cold
How Are Esophageal Spasms Treated?
Because of their association with GERD, esophageal spasms are often treated by treating that ﬁrst. This can be done by giving up certain foods and activities that trigger it, and by taking medicine that helps to neutralize stomach acid.
Similarly, doctors may recommend treating anxiety or depression ﬁrst, if either of those seem to be the underlying cause.
You may also have to make changes to your diet by focusing on eating and drinking foods and beverages that are easy to swallow. Besides these more simple changes, there are other treatments for esophageal spasms:
Medicines that relax the esophageal muscles. The most common is botulinum toxin (Botox) or medications that form calcium channel blockers.
A procedure called dilation— a tube is passed down the esophagus to open up areas that are closed. This procedure is temporary, so it may need to be done every time the spasms cause the throat to close.
Certain surgeries can also help open up the esophagus, or can directly target the problematic muscles. The most common is called a myotomy.
In this procedure, the doctor cuts the lower esophagus muscle in order to weaken it. This procedure is not usually recommended, and should probably be seen as a last resort.
Why Should Esophageal Spasms Get Treatment?
Mostly, esophageal spasms should be treated because they are so painful. In addition, this pain may keep the sufferer from being able to eat or drink, which is obviously dangerous if the symptoms persist.
Because treating the esophageal spasms typically only means a simple diet change, there is no real reason not to ask your doctor for help.
What Else Could the Symptoms Mean?
As is stated above, esophageal spasms are pretty rare, with symptoms that can be caused by a range of other problems. This is why it is important to diagnose esophageal spasms properly— to make sure whatever is causing the symptoms gets treatment right away.
Here are some health problems that could be causing your symptoms:
Angina, or heart pain, could be causing the chest pain, especially if it has spread to the arms and jaw. This pain can often indicate a heart attack, and it is important to get help right away.
The blocked throat and difﬁculty swallowing can be caused by anxiety and panic attacks.
The chest pain may also be caused by what is known as “heartburn,” but is really pain in the esophagus caused by stomach acid. There are many diseases and problems that can cause this; the most common is acid reﬂux.
Achalasia is a similar problem in which the lower muscles of the esophagus do not work correctly. It has similar symptoms, and is more common.
There are some diseases in the nervous system that could keep the nerves from communicating properly, causing irregular contractions of the muscles.
Esophageal spasms can be extremely painful, but if they are diagnosed, it is possible to ﬁnd a treatment. Even if you are unsure, if you have any of these symptoms, going to the doctor can only beneﬁt you.
Either you have it, and can get proper treatment, or you ﬁnd what has really been causing your symptoms and can treat that too.
If you are experiencing the symptoms, make sure to ﬁnd what triggers them and avoid it if you can, and to ask your doctor about medicinal and surgical treatments.
Remember that esophageal spasms can be treated, and that your pain will go away. And in the future, maybe doctors will ﬁnd a way to cure it for good.