Achalasia is a rare condition affecting the oesophagus (the food pipe) that prevents food from entering the stomach properly. There is no cure for achalasia, but there are treatments to ease the symptoms.
What is achalasia?
Achalasia is a health condition that prevents the nerves which control the muscles of the oesophagus and the sphincter from working properly.
Normally, food is pushed down the oesophagus by a series of muscle contractions. It enters the stomach through a valve called the lower oesophageal sphincter.
When someone has achalasia, their sphincter does not relax and so food can’t pass through. Instead of passing into the stomach, the food can get stuck in the oesophagus or come back up into the mouth.
Anyone can develop achalasia but it usually starts between the ages of 20 and 40 and gradually worsens with age. It’s often not clear why it develops, but causes include a virus that damages the nerves of the oesophagus; an autoimmune condition (when your body attacks its own cells); or an infection with Chagas disease, which can destroy nerve cells.
The main symptom of achalasia is difficulty swallowing now and then, and gradually this symptom gets worse. People with achalasia have difficulty swallowing both solid food and liquid.
Other symptoms include:
- regurgitating (vomiting) undigested food, sometimes during your sleep
- feeling like you have a lump in your throat
- chest pain
- coughing or choking
- difficulty burping
- weight loss
- bad breath
One serious complication is that when you bring up food, you might inhale it into your lungs. This can lead to pneumonia. Achalasia can also cause tears in the oesophagus and puts you at a slightly increased risk of cancer.
If you think you may have achalasia, see your doctor. They may refer you to a specialist gastroenterologist, who will conduct some tests. These tests may include:
- Barium swallow: You drink a liquid containing barium, which makes the inside of your oesophagus and stomach show up on an x-ray.
- Gastrografin swallow: As with a barium swallow, you drink a liquid that will show up on an x-ray.
- Oesophageal manometry: A thin tube, which measures pressure along your oesophagus, is inserted through your mouth or nose. This will show whether the muscles or sphincter aren’t working properly.
- Endoscopy: A thin, flexible tube with a light and camera on the end is inserted through your mouth so the doctor can examine the oesophagus.
- Chest x-ray: This can measure whether your oesophagus is enlarged.
Nerves damaged by achalasia can’t be repaired, but a range of treatments can be used to help with the symptoms.
Surgery can reduce pressure at the sphincter. One option is to put a small balloon inside the sphincter and inflate it. This procedure may need to be repeated, and there is a risk of tearing the oesophagus. If this doesn’t work, you can have an operation called a Heller myotomy to cut the muscle around the sphincter so as to release tension. There is a chance you might develop gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) after this surgery.
Another option is to inject botulinum toxin (Botox) into the valve using an endoscope. This can relieve symptoms for about 3 to 12 months.
Medicines can be used to relax the valve, but they often stop working over time and there is a risk of side effects.
When to seek help
Many people don’t have bad symptoms so they don’t bother to see their doctor. But it’s important to have treatment for achalasia to prevent more serious complications, including pneumonia, damage to the lung, inflammation of the oesophagus or cancer.
If you are worried about your symptoms, you should talk to your doctor.
For more information about achalasia and to find a surgeon, visit the Australia & New Zealand Gastric & Oesophageal Surgery Association.
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Last reviewed: March 2019