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Author: Jay W. Marks, MD
Editor: Bhupinder Anand, MD Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Gastroenterology, Baylor University College of Medicine
Source: MedicineNet
 

What is achalasia?

Achalasia is a rare disease of the muscle of the esophagus (swallowing tube). The term achalasia means "failure to relax" and refers to the inability of the lower esophageal sphincter (a ring of muscle situated between the lower esophagus and the stomach) to open and let food pass into the stomach. As a result, patients with achalasia have difficulty in swallowing food.

How does the normal esophagus function?

The esophagus has three functional parts. The uppermost part is the upper esophageal sphincter, a specialized ring of muscle that forms the upper end of the tubular esophagus and separates the esophagus from the throat. The upper sphincter remains closed most of the time to prevent food in the main part of the esophagus from backing up into the throat. The main part of the esophagus is referred to as the body of the esophagus, a long, muscular tube approximately 20 cm (8 in) in length. The third functional part of the esophagus is the lower esophageal sphincter, a ring of specialized esophageal muscle at the junction of the esophagus with the stomach. Like the upper sphincter, the lower sphincter remains closed most of the time to prevent food and acid from backing up into the body of the esophagus from the stomach.

The upper sphincter relaxes with swallowing to allow food and saliva to pass from the throat into the esophageal body. The muscle in the upper esophagus just below the upper sphincter then contracts, squeezing food and saliva further down into the esophageal body. The ring-like contraction of the muscle progresses down the body of the esophagus, propelling the food and saliva towards the stomach. (The progression of the muscular contraction through the esophageal body is referred to as a peristaltic wave.). By the time the peristaltic wave reaches the lower sphincter, the sphincter has opened, and the food passes into the stomach.

How is esophageal function abnormal in achalasia?

In achalasia there is an inability of the lower sphincter to relax and open to let food pass into the stomach. In at least half of the patients, the lower sphincter resting pressure (the pressure in the lower sphincter when the patient is not swallowing) also is abnormally high. In addition to the abnormalities of the lower sphincter, the muscle of the lower half to two-thirds of the body of the esophagus does not contract normally, that is, peristaltic waves do not occur, and, therefore, food and saliva are not propelled down the esophagus and into the stomach. A few patients with achalasia have high-pressure waves in the lower esophageal body following swallows, but these high-pressure waves are not effective in pushing food into the stomach. These patients are referred to as having "vigorous" achalasia. These abnormalities of the lower sphincter and esophageal body are responsible for food sticking in the esophagus.

What causes achalasia?

The cause of achalasia is unknown. Theories on causation invoke infection, heredity or an abnormality of the immune system that causes the body itself to damage the esophagus (autoimmune disease).

The esophagus contains both muscles and nerves. The nerves coordinate the relaxation and opening of the sphincters as well as the peristaltic waves in the body of the esophagus. Achalasia has effects on both the muscles and nerves of the esophagus; however, the effects on the nerves are believed to be the most important. Early in achalasia, inflammation can be seen (when examined under the microscope) in the muscle of the lower esophagus, especially around the nerves. As the disease progresses, the nerves begin to degenerate and ultimately disappear, particularly the nerves that cause the lower esophageal sphincter to relax. Still later in the progression of the disease, muscle cells begin to degenerate, possibly because of the damage to the nerves. The result of these changes is a lower sphincter that cannot relax and muscle in the lower esophageal body that cannot support peristaltic waves. With time, the body of the esophagus stretches and becomes enlarged (dilated).

 

For more information on achalasia, please browse our blog or click on the following links:

Diagnosing Achalasia

Prognosis

Symptoms

Treatments