Esophagus Symptoms

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Introduction

What are the signs of esophagus problems?

Esophagus symptoms include pain or a burning feeling in the throat or chest, and belching. They commonly result from overeating, drinking alcohol while eating, or consuming greasy or spicy foods. Esophagus symptoms can also result from inflammation, infection, or dysfunction in the stomach or esophagus itself.

Impaired motility and difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) are other types of esophagus symptoms, which have multiple causes such as ulceration, strictures, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and scleroderma. Tumors, whether inside or alongside the esophagus, can also interfere with swallowing. Abnormalities involving neighboring structures, such as the enlargement of the thyroid and thymus glands, can also adversely impact the normal passage of food and fluids through the esophagus.

Esophagus symptoms may be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), in which the valve between the stomach and the esophagus becomes dysfunctional and allows stomach contents to enter the esophagus. Less common causes of esophagus symptoms are inflammation due to herpesvirus and Candida infections.

Esophagus symptoms may also develop in people who have weakened immune systems, for example as the result of chemotherapy, human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS), or leukemia (cancer of the blood or bone marrow). It is also possible to acquire esophagus symptoms by taking certain types of pills without drinking enough water.

The duration and course of esophagus symptoms vary widely, depending on the cause. Symptoms caused by certain foods may have a sudden onset. Esophagus symptoms resulting from disease conditions may develop slowly and persist or worsen over time. Certain symptoms such as upper abdominal or chest pain may be due both to conditions of the esophagus, such as heartburn, as well as to heart problems such as angina or heart attack. If these symptoms are due to serious heart conditions, they often will be accompanied by other serious symptoms, including difficulty breathing, bluish coloration of the lips or fingernails, and pain in the shoulder and arm.

In some cases, esophagus symptoms may be a sign of a serious or life-threatening condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, experience esophagus symptoms along with life-threatening symptoms including chest pressure or palpitations; severe breathing problems; or vomiting blood or black material.

Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for esophagus symptoms but mild symptoms recur or are persistent.

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with esophagus symptoms?

Esophagus symptoms may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the esophagus and associated digestive organs may also involve other body systems.

Gastrointestinal symptoms that may occur along with esophagus symptoms

Esophagus symptoms may accompany other symptoms affecting the digestive system including:

Other symptoms that may occur along with esophagus symptoms

Esophagus symptoms may accompany other symptoms including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, esophagus symptoms can be a sign of a serious condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

Causes

What causes esophagus symptoms?

Esophagus symptoms have many possible causes. Most commonly, esophagus symptoms are the result of overeating, drinking alcohol while eating, or consuming greasy or spicy foods. Esophagus symptoms can be caused by digestive conditions such as acid reflux or lactose intolerance. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is another possible cause of esophagus symptoms.

Impaired motility and difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) are other types of esophagus symptoms, which have multiple causes such as ulceration, strictures, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and scleroderma. Tumors, whether inside or alongside the esophagus, can also interfere with swallowing. Abnormalities involving neighboring structures, such as the enlargement of the thyroid and thymus glands, can also adversely impact the normal passage of food and fluids through the esophagus.

Inflammatory diseases or cancers affecting the gallbladder, pancreas or stomach may also result in esophagus symptoms. Other causes of esophagus symptoms include herpes and Candida infections. In rare cases, esophagus symptoms can be a sign of a cardiovascular problem such as a heart attack or angina (chest pain due to the heart not getting enough oxygen).

Common causes of esophagus symptoms

Esophagus symptoms can have common causes including:

  • Alcohol abuse

  • Candidia infection

  • Dyspepsia (indigestion)

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), in which acidic stomach contents flow back into the esophagus

  • Heartburn

  • Herpesvirus infection

  • Obesity

  • Pregnancy

  • Repeated vomiting

  • Smoking

  • Swallowing pills, such as vitamin C, doxycycline, tetracycline, or alendronate (Fosamax), without enough water

Other causes of esophagus symptoms

Other possible causes of esophagus symptoms include:

  • Barrett’s esophagus (cellular changes in the esophagus that may lead to esophageal cancer)

  • Esophagitis (inflammation of the esophagus)

  • Hiatal hernia (protrusion of the stomach into the chest, through a hole in the diaphragm)

Causes of swallowing difficulty

Swallowing difficulty is another esophagus symptom. It can be caused by esophageal conditions including:

  • Achalasia (disorder of the esophagus that impairs its ability to propel food down to the stomach)

  • Esophageal narrowing due to compression caused by tumor or enlarged nearby structures

  • Esophageal narrowing caused by radiation, scarring, chemicals or medications

  • Esophageal spasms

  • Nutcracker esophagus (disorder characterized by abnormal contractions of the muscles of the esophagus)

  • Schatzki’s ring (abnormal ring of tissue in the lower esophagus)

Neurological and muscular causes of swallowing difficulty

Swallowing difficulty can also be caused by neurological and muscular conditions including:

  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a severe neuromuscular disease that causes muscle weakness and disability)

  • Muscular dystrophy (inherited disorder that causes progressive muscle weakness and loss of muscle tissue)

  • Multiple sclerosis (disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, causing weakness, coordination and balance difficulties, and other problems)

  • Parkinson’s disease (brain disorder that impairs movement and coordination)

  • Polymyositis (widespread inflammation and weakness of the muscles)

  • Scleroderma (connective tissue disorder characterized by thickening and stiffening of the skin)

  • Stroke

Serious or life-threatening causes of esophagus symptoms

In some cases, esophagus symptoms may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Angina (chest pain due to the heart not receiving enough oxygen)

  • Bleeding from esophageal varices, tumor, or radiation injury

  • Esophageal cancer

  • Myocardial infarction (heart attack)

  • Perforated esophagus

  • Stroke

Questions for diagnosing the cause of esophagus symptoms

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your esophagus symptoms including:

  • When did you first notice your esophagus symptoms?

  • When do you feel esophagus symptoms?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of esophagus symptoms?

Because esophagus symptoms can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Bleeding esophageal varices (life-threatening rupture and hemorrhage of swollen veins in the esophagus)

  • Esophageal scarring and narrowing

  • Perforated esophagus

  • Poor nutrition due to a decreased desire to eat

  • Poor quality of life

  • Spread of cancer

  • Spread of infection

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Dec 25
  1. Gastroesophageal reflux (GER) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) in Adults. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/gerd/.
  2. Indigestion. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/indigestion/.
  3. Tierney LM Jr., Saint S, Whooley MA (Eds.) Current Essentials of Medicine (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.
  4. Bope ET, Kellerman RD (Eds.) Conn’s Current Therapy.Philadelphia: Saunders, 2013.
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