Esophageal spasms are painful contractions within the muscular tube connecting your mouth and stomach (esophagus). Esophageal spasms can feel like sudden, severe chest pain that lasts from a few minutes to hours.
Esophageal spasms typically occur only occasionally and might not need treatment. But sometimes the spasms are frequent and can prevent food and liquids from traveling through the esophagus. If esophageal spasms interfere with your ability to eat or drink, treatments are available.
Signs and symptoms of esophageal spasms include:
- Squeezing pain in your chest. The pain is often intense, and you might mistake it for heart pain (angina).
- Difficulty swallowing, sometimes related to swallowing specific substances, such as red wine or extremely hot or cold liquids.
- The feeling that an object is stuck in your throat.
- The return of food and liquids back up your esophagus (regurgitation).
When to see a doctor
The squeezing chest pain associated with esophageal spasms can also be caused by a heart attack. If you experience squeezing chest pain, seek immediate medical care.
It's not clear what causes esophageal spasms. However, they appear to be related to abnormal functioning of nerves that control the muscles you use when you swallow.
A healthy esophagus normally moves food into your stomach through a series of coordinated muscle contractions. Esophageal spasms make it difficult for the muscles in the walls of your lower esophagus to coordinate in order to move food to your stomach.
There are two types of esophageal spasms:
- Occasional contractions (diffuse esophageal spasms). This type of spasm may be painful and is often accompanied by regurgitation of food or liquids.
- Painfully strong contractions (nutcracker esophagus). Although painful, this type of spasm — also referred to as jackhammer esophagus — may not cause regurgitation of food or liquids.
Esophageal spasms are a rare condition. They tend to occur in people between the ages of 60 and 80, and may be associated with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Other factors that can increase the risk of esophageal spasms include:
- High blood pressure
- Anxiety or depression
- Drinking red wine or consuming very hot or very cold foods or drinks