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What is a Diffuse Esophageal Spasm?

By Nat Robinson
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A diffuse esophageal spasm is an uncoordinated contraction in the esophagus. The esophagus is a long tube which transports drinks and foods into the stomach. It is lined with muscles which help move food products down the tube and into the stomach for digestion. When a person has a diffuse esophageal spasm, food and drinks will not go down normally and will often feel stuck in the throat. The spasm can cause a great deal of pain, particularly in the chest.

The direct cause of diffuse esophageal spasms has not been clearly identified. Nerve damage in the esophagus may cause the spasms. It may also be caused by certain esophageal-related conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Certain behaviors can contribute to the onset of a diffuse esophageal spasm. This may include eating foods and drinking liquids that are intensely hot or cold.

Difficulty swallowing may be the most prominent symptom of an esophageal spasm. After consuming something, there may be an immediate feeling that whatever was just consumed is trapped in the throat. Many people may also have chest pain that may radiate into the back and abdomen. Other diffuse esophageal spasm symptoms can include a burning sensation in the chest and the need to regurgitate. Often, these symptoms can mimic the symptoms of heartburn.

A diffuse esophageal spasm manometry may be done to diagnose this condition. During this diagnostic test, a thin tube is passed through the nose and sometimes the mouth, down the esophagus and into the stomach. The test is used to examine esophageal pressure by analyzing the coordination of muscle contractions in the organ. Most people will be mildly sedated for this test and will be asked to fast from foods for several hours preceding the examination. The most common complaint of undergoing this type of test is a sore throat afterward.

Sometimes, additional tests may be done on a person suspected to have this esophageal disorder. Often, a computerized tomography (CT) scan may be ordered. The test can present a detailed view of the inside of the esophagus and tell if any abnormalities are present which may be causing the spasms. A barium swallow may be done as well. For this test, an individual will swallow barium, which will be traced as it passes down the esophagus with x-ray images.

Nitroglycerin is often prescribed as a type of diffuse esophageal spasm treatment. Commonly, nitroglycerin is given to treat chest pain, which is a common symptom of this type of spasm. Some physicians may also prescribe calcium channel blockers to patients. These may work to relax the muscles of the esophagus. Many people may be able to limit their amount of esophageal spasms by eliminating behaviors that may cause an attack, which will generally mean avoiding food items that are genuinely hot or cold.

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