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The esophagus is a hollow, muscular tube coursing through the posterior mediastinum joining the hypopharynx to the stomach with a sphincter at each end. It functions to transport food and fluid between these ends, otherwise remaining empty. The physiology of swallowing, esophageal motility, and oral and pharyngeal dysphagia are described in Chap. 40. Esophageal diseases can be manifested by impaired function or pain. Key functional impairments are swallowing disorders and excessive gastroesophageal reflux. Pain, sometimes indistinguishable from cardiac chest pain, can result from inflammation, infection, dysmotility, or neoplasm.


The clinical history remains central to the evaluation of esophageal symptoms. A thoughtfully obtained history will often expedite management. Important details include weight gain or loss, gastrointestinal bleeding, dietary habits including the timing of meals, smoking, and alcohol consumption. The major esophageal symptoms are heartburn, regurgitation, chest pain, dysphagia, odynophagia, and globus sensation.

Heartburn (pyrosis), the most common esophageal symptom, is characterized by a discomfort or burning sensation behind the sternum that arises from the epigastrium and may radiate toward the neck. Heartburn is an intermittent symptom, most commonly experienced after eating, during exercise, and while lying recumbent. The discomfort is relieved with drinking water or antacid but can occur frequently interfering with normal activities including sleep. The association between heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is so strong that empirical therapy for GERD has become accepted management. However, the term “heartburn” is often misused and/or referred to with other terms such as “indigestion” or “repeating,” making it important to clarify the intended meaning.

Regurgitation is the effortless return of food or fluid into the pharynx without nausea or retching. Patients report a sour or burning fluid in the throat or mouth that may also contain undigested food particles. Bending, belching, or maneuvers that increase intraabdominal pressure can provoke regurgitation. A clinician needs to discriminate among regurgitation, vomiting, and rumination. Vomiting is preceded by nausea and accompanied by retching. Rumination is a behavior in which recently swallowed food is regurgitated and then reswallowed repetitively for up to an hour. Although there is some linkage between rumination and cognitive deficiency, the behavior is also exhibited by unimpaired individuals.

Chest pain is a common esophageal symptom with characteristics similar to cardiac pain, sometimes making this distinction difficult. Esophageal pain is usually experienced as a pressure type sensation in the mid chest, radiating to the mid back, arms, or jaws. The similarity to cardiac pain is likely because the two organs share a nerve plexus and the nerve endings in the esophageal wall have poor discriminative ability among stimuli. Esophageal distention or even chemostimulation (e.g., with acid) will often be perceived as chest pain. Gastroesophageal reflux is the most common cause of esophageal chest pain.

Esophageal dysphagia (Chap. 40) is often described as a feeling of food “sticking” ...

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