Esophageal dysmotility

Last revised by Kieran Kusel on 4 Dec 2021

Esophageal dysmotility refers to the pathological disruption of the normal sequential and coordinated muscle motion of the esophagus to transport food from the oropharynx to the stomach 4. It is an umbrella term used to refer to the common pathophysiological endpoint of dysmotility that can be caused by various disorders, which subsequently have a common mode of presentation.

The incidence of motility disorders involving the esophagus is poorly defined. Achalasia (an uncommon cause of esophageal dysmotility) is said to have an approximate incidence of 1-3 per 100,000 in the USA 1.

Dysphagia and chest discomfort are common modes of presentation. Characteristically the dysphagia seen in motility disorders tends to involve both solids and liquids at the outset. Retrospective studies have reported dysphagia lasting up to six years at presentation. Associated dyspepsia, globus, and weight loss may also be present. 

Depending on the underlying cause, certain features can be more prominent than others, for example:

  • progressive solid and liquid dysphagia with chest pain as an early feature
  • chest pain or dyspepsia as the prominent symptom, which may be unrelated to dysphagia
  • features of severe acid reflux including dyspepsia, regurgitation, and dysphagia

Most primary esophageal dysmotility disorders tend to be idiopathic, though various infectious, genetic, and autoimmune mechanisms have been proposed. The exception to this is achalasia, which has a defined pathophysiology.

Secondary causes essentially relate to the involvement of the esophagus in systemic disease such as scleroderma or as a consequence of significant gastro-esophageal reflux disease.

Patients with esophageal dysmotility can be referred for chest x-rays when the dominant feature is chest pain or if there is a cough related to co-existing gastro-esophageal reflux.

Chest radiographs can have non-specific findings but may show a dilated esophagus with a sigmoid appearance in achalasia. A hiatus hernia may be noted.

Contrast swallow examinations are commonly used to assess the esophagus since they provide both anatomical and functional information. This is at times correlated with endoscopic and manometry findings if possible intervention is being considered. If fluoroscopy is unremarkable but the patient remains symptomatic, these tests can be pursued for clarification.

Common findings depending on the cause include:

  • achalasia
    • dilated intrathoracic esophagus
    • air-fluid level
    • bird beak or rat's tail appearance with tapering of the distal esophagus towards the lower esophageal sphincter
  • diffuse esophageal spasm
    • corkscrew or rosary bead appearance
    • possible pseudodiverticula
  • scleroderma
    • slightly dilated esophagus
    • reduced or absent peristalsis
    • free gastro-esophageal reflux
  • gastro-esophageal reflux
    • free gastro-esophageal reflux
    • mucosal changes of erosive esophagitis

ADVERTISEMENT: Supporters see fewer/no ads

Updating… Please wait.

 Unable to process the form. Check for errors and try again.

 Thank you for updating your details.