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Abnormal Propulsion of Food

(Esophageal Motility Disorders)

By Kristle Lee Lynch, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Perelman School of Medicine at The University of Pennsylvania

The movement of food from mouth to stomach requires normal and coordinated action of the mouth and throat, propulsive waves of muscular contractions of the esophagus (called peristalsis), and relaxation of the sphincters (the bands of muscle that need to open so that food can pass from the esophagus into the stomach).

A problem with any of these functions can cause difficulty swallowing (dysphagia), heartburn, chest pain, regurgitation (the spitting up of food from the esophagus or stomach without nausea or forceful contractions of abdominal muscles), vomiting, or aspiration of food (sucking food into the airways when inhaling).

Disorders of the throat also can cause problems with the movement of food (see Propulsion Disorders of the Throat).

The main causes of abnormal propulsion of food are movement (motility) disorders of the esophagus. The most common disorders include

Sometimes, disorders that affect the whole body also affect movement of the esophagus. Examples include systemic sclerosis and Chagas disease.

Doctors use various methods to diagnose movement disorders of the esophagus. Methods include endoscopy with biopsies, barium swallow x-rays, manometry, and acid-related or reflux-related tests.

Treatment of abnormal propulsion of food depends on the cause.

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* This is the Consumer Version. *