Esophageal spasms are painful muscle contractions that affect the esophagus, the hollow tube between the throat and the stomach. Esophageal spasms feel like sudden, severe chest pain that lasts from a few minutes to a few hours.
Esophageal spasms occur only occasionally. However, in some cases, the muscle contractions can become frequent and they can prevent food and liquids from travelling down through the esophagus. Esophageal spasms can lead to chronic pain and swallowing difficulties.
Occasional esophageal spasms may not require any treatment; however, treatment is available for esophageal spasms that interfere with essential daily activities such as eating or drinking.
Symptoms of esophageal spasms include:
- Squeezing pain in the chest, often intense, which might be mistaken for heart pain (angina)
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- The feeling that an object is stuck in the throat (globus)
- The return of food and liquids back up the esophagus (regurgitation)
The exact cause of esophageal spasms is unclear. A healthy esophagus normally moves food into the stomach through a series of coordinated muscle contractions (peristalsis). Esophageal spasms disrupt this process causing difficulties for the muscles in the walls of the lower esophagus to coordinate.
Types of esophageal spasms
- Diffuse esophageal spasms: occasional contractions in the esophageal muscles. This form of spasm most often comes with a symptom of regurgitation of food or liquids.
- Nutcracker esophagus: painfully strong contractions in the esophageal muscles. Nutcracker esophagus is painful but less likely to cause regurgitation of food or liquids.
Esophageal spasms occur more commonly in women than in men. Other factors that increase the risk of esophageal spasms include:
- Eating or drinking very hot or very cold foods or liquids
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
There may be no certain way to prevent esophageal spasms. However, treating any underlying conditions or avoiding food and liquids that may cause heartburn or acid reflux may help lessen the likelihood of esophageal spasms or weaken the esophageal contractions.