Achalasia is a rare neurodegenerative motor smooth muscle motility disorder of the esophagus resulting in deranged oesophageal peristalsis and loss of lower oesophageal sphincter function that makes it difficult for food and liquid to pass into your stomach. Achalasia occurs when nerves in the tube connecting your mouth and stomach (esophagus) become damaged. As a result, the esophagus loses the ability to squeeze food down, and the muscular valve between the esophagus and stomach (lower esophageal sphincter) doesn’t fully relax — making it difficult for food to pass into your stomach.
Achalasia is a rare disorder that makes it difficult for food and liquid to pass from the swallowing tube connecting your mouth and stomach (esophagus) into your stomach.
Synonyms of Achalasia
- Dyssynergia esophagus
- Esophageal peristalsis
- Esophageal achalasia;
- Swallowing problems for liquids and solids;
- lower esophageal sphincter spasm
Types of Achalasia
- Achalasia Type 1 (Classic Achalasia)
- No contractility or peristalsis
- The lower esophageal sphincter fails to relax (all Achalasia types)
- Responds to Laparoscopic Heller Myotomy
- Achalasia Type 2 (with esophageal compression)
- No normal peristalsis (but some pressurizations)
- The lower esophageal sphincter fails to relax (all Achalasia types)
- Responds to all treatment options
- Achalasia Type 3 (Spastic Achalasia)
- No normal peristalsis
- Spastic contractions in distal esophagus (>20% of swallows)
- The lower esophageal sphincter fails to relax (all Achalasia types)
- Responds poorly to treatment
Causes of Achalasia
Dysphagia could be during the oropharyngeal or pharyngeal phases of swallowing.
A. Oropharyngeal dysphagia
It is a delay in the transit of liquid or solid bolus during the oropharyngeal phase of swallowing. It could be due to three main subgroups – (1) neurological, (2) muscular, or (3) anatomical.[rx]
Neurological causes include cerebrovascular accidents (post-stroke dysphagia), brainstem infarctions with cranial nerve involvement. Other causes include basal ganglia lesions as in Parkinson’s disease. Also, head and neck injuries and surgery, multiple sclerosis, central nervous tumor, botulism, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, supranuclear palsy, and degenerative cervical spine disease.
Muscular causes include polymyositis, muscular dystrophy, and myasthenia gravis (a lesion at the neuromuscular junction).
B. Esophageal dysphagia- could be due to mechanical obstruction, or motility disorders.
Mechanical obstruction causes include Schatzki ring, esophageal stricture, esophageal carcinoma, eosinophilic esophagitis.[rx]
Motility disorder causes include esophageal spasm, achalasia, ineffective esophageal motility, and scleroderma.
Mechanical obstruction is associated with dysphagia only to solid food, while the motility disorder causes are usually associated with solid and liquid dysphagia. The dysphagia may be intermittent (e.g., Schatzki ring, esophageal spasm) or permanent (as in esophageal stricture, carcinoma, achalasia, scleroderma, ineffective esophageal motility).[rx]
C. Rheumatological disorders
Sjogren syndrome (occurs in one-third of patients and caused by both xerostomia and abnormal esophageal motility, mainly of the proximal esophagus.
Systemic lupus erythematosus
Mixed connective tissue disease
Systemic sclerosis (as part of the CREST syndrome)
Several drugs may contribute to the severity of dysphagia. The mechanisms by which these drugs may cause dysphagia include xerostomia and changes in esophageal motility. Also, the dysphagia may be secondary to the development of drug-induced esophagitis or the development of gastroesophageal reflux disease. Examples of these drugs are:
Antipsychotic (e.g., olanzapine, clozapine)
Calcium channel blockers
Medications with immunosuppressant effects (e.g., cyclosporin) can predispose to infective esophagitis and dysphagia
It is important to note here that narcotic sedatives such as opioids can lead to compromise of airway due to central effects and could increase the risk of aspiration in patients with dysphagia. The use of opiates, even in low disease, in patients with psychiatric disorders or Parkinson’s disease, can develop hypercontractile or hypertensive esophageal consequences mimicking type III achalasia.
Diffuse esophageal spasm.
Dysphagia lusoria is a type of dysphagia that develops in childhood, due to compression of the esophagus by vascular abnormality. Usually, there is an aberrant right subclavian artery arising from the left side of the aortic arch, or a double aortic arch, or other rare anomalies.
Esophageal webs and rings
Symptoms of Achalasia
Achalasia symptoms generally appear gradually and worsen over time. Signs and symptoms may include:
- Inability to swallow (dysphagia), which may feel like food or drink is stuck in your throat
- Regurgitating food or saliva
- Chest pain that comes and goes
- Coughing at night
- Pneumonia (from aspiration of food into the lungs)
- Weight loss
- Trouble swallowing (dysphagia). This is the most common early symptom.
- Regurgitation of undigested food.
- Chest pain that comes and goes; pain can be severe.
- Cough at night
- Weight loss/malnutrition from difficulty eating. This is a late symptom.
- Hiccups, difficulty belching (less common symptoms)
Diagnosis of Achalasia
Achalasia can be overlooked or misdiagnosed because it has symptoms similar to other digestive disorders. To test for achalasia, your doctor is likely to recommend:
- Endoscopy – Approximately 2% to 4% of patients with suspected achalasia have pseudoachalasia from infiltrating malignancy or stricture.36 Potential risk factors for malignancy-associated pseudoachalasia include older age at the time of diagnosis, shorter duration of symptoms, and more weight loss (12 vs 5 kg) on presentation.37 Patients with 2 or more of these risk factors on presentation should undergo a careful investigation to rule out malignancy.36,37
- Barium esophagram – A barium esophagram is a noninvasive radiologic study that can assist with initial diagnosis or response to treatment with graded PD. A barium swallow evaluates the morphology of the esophagus and classically shows a dilated or tortuous esophagus with a narrowed LES and “bird’s beak” appearance (Figure 5).
- Manometry – HRM is the gold standard test for the diagnosis of achalasia. Conventional manometry tracings in patients with achalasia show the absence of esophageal peristalsis and incomplete LES relaxation with residual pressures of over 10 mm Hg. HRM with esophageal pressure topography is more sensitive and specific than conventional manometry and is able to classify achalasia into 3 distinct subtypes, which can have treatment implications (Table 3).7 Type II achalasia has the best response to treatment, followed by type I achalasia, whereas type III achalasia is the most difficult to treat.41,42
- Esophageal manometry. This test measures the rhythmic muscle contractions in your esophagus when you swallow, the coordination and force exerted by the esophagus muscles, and how well your lower esophageal sphincter relaxes or opens during a swallow. This test is the most helpful when determining which type of motility problem you might have.
- X-rays of your upper digestive system (esophagram). X-rays are taken after you drink a chalky liquid that coats and fills the inside lining of your digestive tract. The coating allows your doctor to see a silhouette of your esophagus, stomach, and upper intestine. You may also be asked to swallow a barium pill that can help to show a blockage of the esophagus.
- Upper endoscopy. Your doctor inserts a thin, flexible tube equipped with a light and camera (endoscope) down your throat, to examine the inside of your esophagus and stomach. Endoscopy can be used to define a partial blockage of the esophagus if your symptoms or results of a barium study indicate that possibility. Endoscopy can also be used to collect a sample of tissue (biopsy) to be tested for complications of reflux such as Barrett’s esophagus.
Treatment of Achalasia
Achalasia treatment focuses on relaxing or stretching open the lower esophageal sphincter so that food and liquid can move more easily through your digestive tract.
Specific treatment depends on your age, health condition and the severity of the achalasia.
Nonsurgical options include:
- The management plan. may include (i) elimination of certain food consistencies from the diet. (ii) adjustment of meal bolus seizes and (iii) use of techniques such as chin-tuck, head-turn, and supraglottic maneuvers to help in minimizing/preventing aspiration. Also, strengthening and coordinating muscles involved in swallowing. Gastroscopy tubes may be indicated in patients who fail to respond to the above-stated measures.
- Pneumatic dilation. A balloon is inserted by endoscopy into the center of the esophageal sphincter and inflated to enlarge the opening. This outpatient procedure may need to be repeated if the esophageal sphincter doesn’t stay open. Nearly one-third of people treated with balloon dilation need repeat treatment within five years. This procedure requires sedation.
- Botox (botulinum toxin type A). This muscle relaxant can be injected directly into the esophageal sphincter with an endoscopic needle. The injections may need to be repeated, and repeat injections may make it more difficult to perform surgery later if needed. Botox is generally recommended only for people who aren’t good candidates for pneumatic dilation or surgery due to age or overall health. Botox injections typically do not last more than six months. A strong improvement from the injection of Botox may help confirm a diagnosis of achalasia.
- BT injection. for achalasia is an effective short-term therapy. BT injection into the LES locally inhibits the release of acetylcholine, causing relaxation of the smooth muscle, which allows for easier passage of food bolus into the gastric body.
- Balloon dilation. In this non-surgical procedure, you’ll be put under light sedation while a specifically designed balloon is inserted through the LES and then inflated. The procedure relaxes the muscle sphincter, which allows food to enter your stomach. Balloon dilation is usually the first treatment option in people in whom surgery fails. You may have to undergo several dilation treatments to relieve your symptoms, and every few years to maintain relief.
- Stretching the esophagus (pneumatic dilation). The doctor inserts a balloon in the valve between the esophagus and stomach and blows it up to stretch the tight muscles. You might need this procedure several times before it helps.
- Muscle relaxants – such as nitroglycerin (Nitrostat) or nifedipine (Procardia) before eating. These medications have limited treatment effects and severe side effects. Medications are generally considered only if you’re not a candidate for pneumatic dilation or surgery, and Botox hasn’t helped. This type of therapy is rarely indicated.
- Sublingual nifedipine – significantly improves outcomes in 75% of people with mild or moderate disease. It was classically considered that surgical myotomy provided greater benefit than either botulinum toxin or dilation in those who fail medical management.[rx] However, a recent randomized controlled trial found pneumatic dilation to be non-inferior to laparoscopic Heller myotomy.[rx]
- Pharmacotherapy-nitrates, calcium-channel blockers – (e.g., nifedipine 10 to 20 mg sublingual 15 to 30 minutes before meals). It acts by lowering the lower esophageal sphincter resting pressure. Nitrates, calcium channel blockers, and phosphodiesterase-5 inhibitors to reduce the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) pressure.
- Calcium channel blockers – inhibit the entry of calcium into the cells blocking smooth muscle contraction, leading to a decrease in LES pressure. Hypotension, pedal edema, headache, the rapid development of tolerance, and incomplete symptom improvement are limiting factors to its use. Nitrates increase nitric oxide concentrations in smooth muscles, causing an increase in cyclic adenosine monophosphate levels, which leads to smooth muscle relaxation. These treatments are less effective, provide only short-term relief of symptoms, and are primarily reserved for patients who are waiting for or who refused more definitive therapy, such as pneumatic dilatation or surgery.[rx][rx]
- Scopolamine – also known as hyoscine Devil’s Breath, is a natural or synthetically produced tropane alkaloid and anticholinergic drug that is formally used as a medication for treating motion and sickness, achalasia, and postoperative nausea and vomiting. It is also sometimes used before surgery to decrease saliva.[rx] When used by injection, effects begin after about 20 minutes and last for up to 8 hours.[rx] It may also be used orally and as a transdermal patch.[rx]
Surgical options for treating achalasia include:
- Peroral endoscopic myotomy (POEM) – is an effective minimally invasive alternative to laparoscopic Heller myotomy to treat achalasia at limited centers. Dissection of the circular fibers of the LES is achieved endoscopically, leading to relaxation of the LES; however, the risk of gastroesophageal reflux is high because it does not include an antireflux procedure. Esophagectomy is the last resort.
- Heller myotomy. The surgeon cuts the muscle at the lower end of the esophageal sphincter to allow food to pass more easily into the stomach. The procedure can be done noninvasively (laparoscopic Heller myotomy). Some people who have a Heller myotomy may later develop gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). To avoid future problems with GERD, a procedure known as fundoplication might be performed at the same time as a Heller myotomy. In fundoplication, the surgeon wraps the top of your stomach around the lower esophagus to create an anti-reflux valve, preventing acid from coming back (GERD) into the esophagus. Fundoplication is usually done with a minimally invasive (laparoscopic) procedure.
- Peroral endoscopic myotomy (POEM). In the POEM procedure, the surgeon uses an endoscope inserted through your mouth and down your throat to create an incision in the inside lining of your esophagus. Then, as in a Heller myotomy, the surgeon cuts the muscle at the lower end of the esophageal sphincter. POEM may also be combined with or followed by later fundoplication to help prevent GERD. Some patients who have a POEM and develop GERD after the procedure are treated with daily oral medication.