Esophageal spasms are abnormal contractions of the muscles in the esophagus, the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. These spasms do not move food effectively to the stomach.
The cause of esophageal spasm is unknown. Very hot or very cold foods may trigger spasms in some people.
Symptoms may include:
- Problems swallowing or pain with swallowing
- Pain in the chest or upper abdomen
It can be hard to tell a spasm from angina pectoris, a symptom of heart disease. The pain may spread to the neck, jaw, arms, or back
Exams and Tests
Tests you may need to look for the condition include:
- Esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD)
- Esophageal manometry
- Esophagogram (barium swallow x-ray)
Nitroglycerin given under the tongue (sublingual) may help a sudden episode of esophageal spasm. Long-acting nitroglycerin and calcium channel blockers are also used for the problem.
Long-term (chronic) cases are sometimes treated with low-dose antidepressants such as trazodone or nortriptyline to reduce symptoms.
Rarely, severe cases may need dilation (widening) of the esophagus or surgery to control symptoms.
An esophageal spasm may come and go (intermittent) or last for a long time (chronic). Medicine can help relieve symptoms.
The condition may not respond to treatment.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Contact your health care provider if you have symptoms of esophageal spasm that don't go away. The symptoms may actually be due to heart problems. Your provider can help decide if you need heart tests.
Avoid very hot or very cold foods if you get esophageal spasms.
Diffuse esophageal spasm; Spasm of the esophagus; Distal esophageal spasm; Nutcracker esophagus
Falk GW, Katzka DA. Diseases of the esophagus. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 129.
Pandolfino JE, Kahrilas PJ. Esophageal neuromuscular function and motility disorders. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 44.
Review Date 11/3/2022
Updated by: Michael M. Phillips, MD, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, The George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington, DC. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.