Esophageal Spasms

What is Esophageal Spasms?

Esophageal spasms are contractions that occur in the esophagus. These are painful and can feel like severe and sudden chest pain that will last anywhere from just a few minutes to several hours.

These types of spasms will usually happen only occasionally, but some patients complain of frequent spasms that could even prevent liquids and foods from moving down the esophagus.

The condition is uncommon and usually connected to other underlying disorders such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or achalasia.

What are the Symptoms of Esophageal Spasms?

The symptoms that are associated with esophageal spasms are:

  • Having difficulty swallowing. Sometimes this difficulty is only associated with swallowing particular substances, such as very hot beverages, wine, or cold drinks.
  • Painful swallowing or a burning sensation within the chest.
  • The sensation of a squeezing type of pain within the chest. Often intense, this pain may even be mistaken for heart pain. Also, this pain might spread to the jaw, neck, back, or arms.
  • The sensation that there is something stuck within the throat or within the center of the chest.
  • The regurgitation of liquids and foods back up the esophagus after they have been swallowed.

Esophageal Spasms Causes

Doctors are unsure as to the exact cause of esophageal spasms. In most patients, these spasms occur so infrequently that it is often difficult to perform any type of diagnostic testing. There are some possible causes linked to esophageal spasm development.

At this time, the primary cause of esophageal spasm appears to be gastric esophageal reflux disease (GERD). In this condition, acid from the stomach is forced up into the esophagus. Over time, GERD can damage the esophagus. When the reflux into the esophagus is particularly heavy, it may result in an esophageal spasm.

Drinking very cold liquids quickly has been noted to cause esophageal spasm. This too is usually a rare occurrence. Drinking hot liquid may cause a spasm, but it is less likely. Some people have reported an esophageal spasm after consuming red wine.

An esophageal spasm may occur during periods of high stress and anxiety. Those who suffer from severe panic attacks have reported the symptoms of esophageal spasm on occasion.

How is Esophageal Spasms Treated?

If esophageal spasms occur occasionally, they likely will not require any treatment. However, treatment will be necessary if esophageal spasms end up interfering with an individual’s ability to drink or eat.

Other conditions, as for example gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), that could trigger or be making the esophageal spasms worse will also need to be treated.

Treatment includes

  • Changing your diet to avoid certain liquids and foods while focusing on foods and drinks that are easier to swallow
  • Surgery might be recommended to correct a problem affecting the lower esophageal muscle
  • Dilation to expand narrow parts of the esophagus
  • Medications that can relax the muscles of the esophagus

Esophageal Spasms Prevention

Since GERD seems to be the primary cause of esophageal spasms, keeping this condition under control is key to preventing esophageal spasms. Diet and medication are normally used in combination to control GERD. There are also over-the-counter acid reducers that will benefit many GERD suffers. If these medications do not provide relief, numerous prescription drugs are on the market to treat the condition.

Diet plays a role in esophageal spasm in so far as a proper diet may help to reduce reflux into the esophagus. It is important to eat smaller meals throughout the day. Eating a low-fat diet and avoiding spicy foods will help with acid production.

Drinking liquids that are not too hot or not too cold will help to prevent esophageal spasms. Whatever the liquid temperature, it is important not to drink too quickly.

Reducing stress is important in preventing many types of conditions. Practicing stress management techniques and relaxation will improve overall health and help prevent esophageal spasms that are related to stress and anxiety.

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Last Reviewed:
October 05, 2016
Last Updated:
December 20, 2017