The movement of food from mouth to stomach requires normal and coordinated action of the mouth and throat, propulsive waves of muscular contractions of the esophagus (called peristalsis), and relaxation of the sphincters (the bands of muscle that need to open so that food can pass from the esophagus into the stomach).
(See also Overview of the Esophagus.)
How the Esophagus Works
As a person swallows, food moves from the mouth to the throat, also called the pharynx (1). The upper esophageal sphincter opens (2) so that food can enter the esophagus, where waves of muscular contractions, called peristalsis, propel the food downward (3). The food then passes through the diaphragm (4) and lower esophageal sphincter (5) and moves into the stomach.
A problem with any of these functions can cause difficulty swallowing (dysphagia), heartburn, chest pain, regurgitation (the spitting up of food from the esophagus or stomach without nausea or forceful contractions of abdominal muscles), vomiting, or aspiration of food (sucking food into the airways when inhaling).
Disorders of the throat also can cause problems with the movement of food (see Propulsion Disorders of the Throat).
The main causes of abnormal propulsion of food are movement (motility) disorders of the esophagus. The most common disorders include
Doctors use various methods to diagnose movement disorders of the esophagus. Methods include endoscopy with biopsies, barium swallow x-rays, manometry, and acid reflux tests, and impedance planimetry.
Treatment of abnormal propulsion of food depends on the cause.