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Achalasia is a rare disorder of the esophagus that affects about 1 in 100,00 people. Both men and women have equal chances of developing it, and it isn’t associated prominently in one ethnicity over another. Achalasia typically develops between the ages of 25 and 60.
The esophagus is the tube that connects your throat to the stomach. At the bottom of the esophagus is a muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). Its job is to relax in order to let food pass through. When a person is finished eating, a properly functioning LES will close. When the LES has spasms, stomach acid makes its way into the esophagus, which can cause damage, often resulting in acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). However, in a person with achalasia, the LES does not relax at all, and food cannot make its way into the small intestine.
If a patient develops achalasia, they will most likely have noticeable symptoms. The most common symptom of achalasia is dysphagia, which is difficulty swallowing. Other symptoms of achalasia may include:
These are all common symptoms when it comes to gastrointestinal disorders, so if you’re experiencing one or more of them for more than a day or two, you should consult your gastroenterologist so you can get a checkup.
Researchers and doctors are unsure of the exact cause of achalasia. Some research leans toward genetics, however, all adults from age 25 to 60 have an equal risk of developing achalasia, even though it is a rare disorder. It doesn’t target a specific gender or ethnic group. A theory is that achalasia is an autoimmune disorder, where the body’s cells attack healthy cells, but more research is needed. If achalasia is not treated, it can lead to more serious problems, such as esophageal cancer, lung infections, and pneumonia.
If your healthcare provider suspects achalasia, they will run certain diagnostic tests to confirm the diagnosis. Some of the possible options include:
If your physician finds enough evidence for achalasia, it is time to discuss treatment options. Achalasia does have potentially severe consequences if it goes untreated.
There is no cure for achalasia, but a few treatments can help arrest the symptoms and help the LES function properly again. Treatment depends upon each individual case, and your gastroenterologist will go over all of the options with your prior to starting treatment. Some options include:
With both surgical and nonsurgical treatments, there can be possible side effects of GERD, bloating, and perforation of the esophagus.
If achalasia is not treated, it can result in serious complications. Malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies are common since food cannot properly enter the small intestine. Additionally, long-term damage from achalasia can put one at risk of developing esophageal cancer. If you’re experiencing gastrointestinal disturbances, the best rule of thumb is to always be evaluated by your healthcare provider.
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