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Esophageal Spasm

Esophageal Spasm

Alternate Names

  • diffuse esophageal spasm
  • DES
  • spasm of the esophagus
  • Digestive system


Esophageal spasm is an uncoordinated contraction of the muscles of the esophagus. The esophagus is the muscular tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach.

What is going on in the body?

Normally, the esophagus muscles contract and relax in order, from top to bottom. This moves the food from the mouth to the stomach. In esophageal spasm, all the muscles contract in an uncoordinated pattern. This causes pain and fails to move the food along. As a result, the person may have trouble swallowing. Sometimes the condition is triggered by eating hot or cold foods.


What are the causes and risks of the condition?

Women are more likely than men to have esophageal spasm. The cause of the spasms is not known, though gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) is felt to increase the likelihood. Someone who gets spasm after eating hot or cold food may have a hypersensitive esophagus.


What can be done to prevent the condition?

If a person's esophageal spasm is triggered by hot or cold foods, he or she should avoid them. If the person has GERD, the provider will treat it with medication.


How is the condition diagnosed?

Esophageal spasm can be diagnosed by a test called manometry. In this test, which takes about 60 minutes, a special tube is inserted down the esophagus. The tube measures the muscle activity of the esophagus.
Abnormal contractions mixed with normal movement suppports the diagnosis. A person with a hypersensitive esophagus may be diagnosed by inflating a long balloon in the person's esophagus. If this causes the same symptoms, preventive methods may work.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

Esophageal spasm does not usually lead to more serious problems. The pain, however, can be disabling. Sometimes a person is afraid to eat and becomes malnourished or loses weight.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

Esophageal spasm is not contagious and poses no risk to others.


What are the treatments for the condition?

Treatment for esophageal spasm may include:
  • dilation, a procedure in which instruments of increasing size are inserted through the esophagus. However, this usually only provides temporary relief.
  • nitrate medications, such as nitroglycerin. These medications are the same as those used for chest pain caused by heart problems.
  • calcium channel blockers, including nifedipine (i.d., TAdalat, Procardia) and verapamil (i.e., Calan, Covera, Ioptin, Verelan)
An individual with a hypersensitive esophagus sometimes improves with low doses of medications normally used for depression, such as imipramine (i.e., Tofranil) or trazodone (i.e., Desyrel).

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Nitrates can cause headaches and low blood pressure. Calcium channel blockers can cause nausea, constipation, and other side effects. Antidepressants can cause side effects that depend on the medication used.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

No treatment for esophageal spasm is effective for everyone. Often several approaches will be tried before one works. In many cases, the symptoms will only partially resolve.


How is the condition monitored?

The person's symptoms are usually the best guide to how well the treatment for esophageal spasm works. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider.


Medical Knowledge Self Assessment Program XI, Part C, Book 3, p. 1034

Scientific American Medicine 4(I):1-12

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