Esophageal Spasms – Symptoms and Causes


Esophageal Spasms are problems related to the muscles in the esophagus; they are painful contractions in the muscular tube that connects the mouth to the stomach (i.e., the tube that takes drinks and food to your stomach after swallowing). Esophageal spasms may incur minor or severe symptoms like difficulty swallowing or severe and sudden chest pain that lasts for a few minutes or hours. It can sometimes be mistaken as heart pain (angina) [1].

The muscles that make up the part of the esophagus work together in complex ways. The muscular valves (sphincters) open and close at both ends of the esophagus to allow food and liquids to flow or pass from the mouth to the stomach. These valves also prevent food or beverages from coming back up into the esophagus from the stomach for no reason.

After swallowing, the esophagus muscles contract (relax and flex). When the esophagus functions and works as it should, the wave of coordinated contractions moves food or fluids down the stomach. This series of contractions is called peristalsis [2].

An esophageal spasm can also mean that contractions of the esophagus are uncoordinated, powerful, and sometimes irregular. This irregularity prevents food from reaching the stomach causing the food to get stuck in the esophagus and incur severe pain. Sometimes the contractions move the food through the esophagus but with severe pain. This can be called the nutcracker esophagus [3].

Esophageal spasms are rare, although if you have experienced one, you will likely get another. These contractions are not really dangerous, but they cause discomfort and can often result in dysphagia [4], and even cause you to regurgitate your food.

An esophageal spasm can affect or manifest in your esophagus muscles in two ways;

  • Distal or diffuse esophageal spasm: These uncoordinated muscle contractions happen primarily in the lower part of the esophagus. It causes already swallowed food or liquid to come back to your esophagus (regurgitation) [5].
  • Nutcracker or jackhammer esophagus: This also affects how esophagus muscles work. This causes pain, especially when you swallow as a result of the muscle being strong or forceful. The pain can be severe, and you may feel like squeezing your chest. It can be identified by its twisting and or contortion of the esophagus.

Esophagus spasm happens due to some set triggers that cause the muscles in your esophagus to contract when they are not supposed to. The muscular tube that runs from the throat to the top of the stomach is the esophagus. In a normal condition, coordinated muscle contraction assists in moving food down into the stomach after swallowing through a process known as peristalsis [6].