(Cardiospasm; Esophageal Aperistalsis; Megaesophagus)
Achalasia is a neurogenic esophageal motility disorder characterized by impaired esophageal peristalsis, a lack of lower esophageal sphincter relaxation during swallowing, and an elevation of lower esophageal sphincter resting pressure. Symptoms are slowly progressive dysphagia, usually to both liquids and solids, and regurgitation of undigested food. Evaluation typically includes barium swallow, endoscopy, and sometimes manometry. Treatments include dilation, chemical denervation, and surgical myotomy.
(See also the American College of Gastroenterology's practice guidelines on the diagnosis and management of achalasia.)
Achalasia is thought to be caused by a loss of ganglion cells in the myenteric plexus of the esophagus, resulting in denervation of esophageal muscle. Etiology of the denervation is unknown, although a viral cause is suspected, and certain tumors may cause achalasia either by direct obstruction or as a paraneoplastic process. Chagas disease, which causes destruction of autonomic ganglia, may result in achalasia.
Increased pressure at the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) causes obstruction with secondary dilation of the esophagus. Esophageal retention of undigested food is common.
Symptoms and Signs
Achalasia occurs at any age but usually begins between ages 20 and 60. Onset is insidious, and progression is gradual over months or years. Dysphagia for both solids and liquids is the major symptom. Nocturnal regurgitation of undigested food occurs in about 33% of patients and may cause cough and pulmonary aspiration. Chest pain is less common but may occur on swallowing or spontaneously. Mild to moderate weight loss occurs; when weight loss is pronounced, particularly in elderly patients whose symptoms of dysphagia developed rapidly, achalasia secondary to a tumor of the gastroesophageal junction should be considered.
The preferred test is barium swallow, which shows absence of progressive peristaltic contractions during swallowing. The esophagus is dilated, often enormously, but is narrowed and beaklike at the LES. If esophagoscopy is done, there is dilation but no obstructing lesion. The esophagoscope usually passes readily into the stomach; resistance raises the possibility of an inapparent cancer or stricture. To exclude cancer, a retroflexed view of the gastric cardia, biopsies, and brushings for cytology should be obtained. Esophageal manometry is usually done and typically shows aperistalsis, increased LES pressure, and incomplete sphincteric relaxation during swallowing.
Achalasia must be differentiated from a distal stenosing carcinoma and a peptic stricture, particularly in patients with systemic sclerosis (see Autoimmune Rheumatic Disorders: Systemic Sclerosis), in whom esophageal manometry may also show aperistalsis. Systemic sclerosis is usually accompanied by a history of Raynaud's phenomenon and symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), due to low or absent LES pressure.
Achalasia due to cancer at the gastroesophageal junction can be diagnosed by CT of the chest and abdomen or by endoscopic ultrasound.
Pulmonary aspiration and the presence of cancer are the determining prognostic factors. Nocturnal regurgitation and coughing suggest aspiration. Pulmonary complications secondary to aspiration are difficult to manage. Incidence of esophageal cancer in patients with achalasia may be increased; this point is controversial.
No therapy restores peristalsis; treatment aims at reducing the pressure (and thus the obstruction) at the LES. Pneumatic balloon dilation of the LES is indicated initially. Results are satisfactory in about 85% of patients, but repeated dilations may be needed. Esophageal rupture and secondary mediastinitis requiring surgical repair occur in < 2% of patients. Nitrates (eg, isosorbide dinitrate 5 to 10 mg sublingually before meals) or Ca channel blockers (eg, nifedipine 10 mg po tid) are of limited effectiveness but may reduce LES pressure enough to prolong the time between dilations.
Achalasia can also be treated by chemical denervation of cholinergic nerves in the distal esophagus by direct injection of botulinum toxin type A into the LES. Clinical improvement occurs in 70 to 80% of patients, but results may last only 6 mo to 1 yr.
A Heller myotomy, in which the muscular fibers in the LES are cut, is usually reserved for patients who do not respond to dilation; its success rate is about 85%. It can be done via laparoscopy or thoracoscopy and may be a viable alternative to dilation as primary therapy. Symptomatic GERD occurs after surgery in about 15% of patients.
Symptomatic Diffuse Esophageal Spasm
(Spastic Pseudodiverticulosis; Rosary Bead or Corkscrew Esophagus)
Symptomatic diffuse esophageal spasm is part of a spectrum of motility disorders characterized variously by nonpropulsive contractions, hyperdynamic contractions, or elevated lower esophageal sphincter pressure. Symptoms are chest pain and sometimes dysphagia. Diagnosis is by barium swallow or manometry. Treatment is difficult but includes nitrates, Ca channel blockers, botulinum toxin injection, and antireflux therapy.
Abnormalities in esophageal motility correlate poorly with patient symptoms; similar abnormalities may cause different or no symptoms in different people. Furthermore, neither symptoms nor abnormal contractions are definitively associated with histopathologic abnormalities of the esophagus.
Symptoms and Signs
Diffuse esophageal spasm typically causes substernal chest pain with dysphagia for both liquids and solids. The pain may waken the patient from sleep. Very hot or cold liquids may aggravate the pain. Over many years, this disorder may evolve into achalasia.
Esophageal spasms can cause severe pain without dysphagia. This pain is often described as a substernal squeezing pain and may occur in association with exercise. Such pain may be indistinguishable from angina pectoris.
Some patients have symptoms that combine those of achalasia and diffuse spasm. One such combination has been called vigorous achalasia because it features both the food retention and aspiration of achalasia and the severe pain and spasm of diffuse spasm.
Alternative diagnoses include coronary ischemia. Definitive confirmation of an esophageal origin for symptoms is difficult. Barium swallow may show poor progression of a bolus and disordered, simultaneous contractions or tertiary contractions. Severe spasms may mimic the radiographic appearance of diverticula but vary in size and position. Esophageal manometry (see Diagnostic and Therapeutic GI Procedures: Manometry) provides the most specific description of the spasms. Contractions are usually simultaneous, prolonged or multiphasic, and possibly of very high amplitude (“nutcracker esophagus”). However, spasms may not occur during testing. Lower esophageal sphincter (LES) pressure elevation or impaired relaxation is present in 30% of patients. Esophageal scintigraphy and provocative tests with drugs (eg, edrophonium chloride 10 mg IV) have not proved helpful.
Esophageal spasms are often difficult to treat, and controlled studies of treatment methods are lacking. Anticholinergics, nitroglycerin, and long-acting nitrates have had limited success. Ca channel blockers given orally (eg, verapamil 80 mg tid, nifedipine 10 mg tid) may be useful, as may injection of botulinum toxin type A into the LES.
Medical management is usually sufficient, but pneumatic dilation and bougienage, or even surgical myotomy along the full length of the esophagus, may be tried in intractable cases.
Last full review/revision October 2007 by Michael C. DiMarino, MD
Content last modified November 2012