Achalasia is a swallowing disorder that affects the nerves and muscles of the esophagus and the lower esophageal sphincter, the muscular ring that controls the lower portion of the esophagus.
When you eat, the muscles of your esophagus contract, pushing the food down. At the bottom of your esophagus, the sphincter opens, letting food into your stomach. In achalasia, the esophagus muscles don’t squeeze and the sphincter muscle doesn’t open, so food can’t pass through, explained Jacob Klapper, MD, a thoracic surgeon at Duke.
People who experience this rare and often painful disorder go to great lengths -- standing up, twisting their bodies, or raising their arms above their head -- just to get food down.
“I’ve had patients who have to literally jump up and down repeatedly in order to get any food to pass,” said Matthew Hartwig, MD, a thoracic surgeon at Duke.
Some people stop eating solid food altogether. Others may also experience chest pain, weight loss, coughing, and regurgitation of food and liquids. Together, the symptoms of achalasia can significantly lower a person’s quality of life.