Esophageal spasms are painful muscle contractions that affect your esophagus, the hollow tube between your throat and your stomach. Esophageal spasms can feel like sudden, severe chest pain that lasts from a few minutes to hours.
Esophageal spasms usually occur only occasionally. But for some people, the muscle contractions are frequent and can prevent food and liquids from traveling through the esophagus. Esophageal spasms can lead to chronic pain and swallowing problems.
Treatment for occasional esophageal spasms may not be necessary. But if esophageal spasms interfere with your ability to eat or drink, treatments are available.
It’s not clear what causes esophageal spasms.
A healthy esophagus normally moves food into your stomach through a series of coordinated muscle contractions (peristalsis). Esophageal spasms disrupt this process by making it difficult for the muscles in the walls of your lower esophagus to coordinate in order to move food to your stomach.
Types of esophageal spasms
Esophageal spasms may occur in two forms:
- Diffuse esophageal spasms are occasional contractions in the esophageal muscles. This type of spasm is often accompanied by regurgitation of food or liquids.
- Nutcracker esophagus is the term for painfully strong contractions in the esophageal muscles. Nutcracker esophagus is less likely to cause regurgitation of food and liquids.
Signs and symptoms of esophageal spasms can include:
- Squeezing pain in your chest, often intense, which you might mistake for heart pain (angina)
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- The feeling that an object is stuck in your throat (globus)
- The return of food and liquids back up your esophagus (regurgitation)
When to see a doctor
The squeezing chest pain that esophageal spasms can cause can also be caused by a heart attack or angina. If you experience squeezing chest pain, especially if it is a new symptom, seek medical care right away to make sure it’s not a heart problem.