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Everything we eat or drink travels down the esophagus or literally, the food pipe. Wave-like contractions of the esophagus (peristalsis) work to move solids and liquids to the stomach. Normally the muscular valve at the base of the esophagus, called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), relaxes and opens as we swallow. This action allows ingested materials to enter the stomach, while preventing food from coming back up. In rare instances, the LES stays contracted and prevents food from passing through due to an uncommon gastrointestinal condition known as achalasia.

Achalasia damages the nerves of the esophagus and impairs its motility. Typically causing difficulty swallowing, achalasia has no known cause or cure. Some research has shown a potential link to viral infection. While achalasia primarily affects the middle-aged and elderly, people of all ages may develop the condition.

Symptoms and Diagnosis of Achalasia

Achalasia leads to a variety of symptoms including:

  • trouble swallowing
  • heartburn
  • regurgitation 
  • chest pain
  • unintended weight loss

Many of the symptoms of achalasia mimic other GI problems. It is important to obtain an accurate diagnosis from your primary care physician or gastroenterologist. Recommended diagnostic tests include:

Surgical Treatment Options for Achalasia

Most treatments for achalasia involve relaxing the LES and/or widening the sphincter opening for easier passage of food to the stomach. At NorthShore, several successful therapies are available to treat achalasia, from medications and balloon dilation to surgery to cut the muscle tissue of the LES.

NorthShore’s Department of Surgery has a tremendous amount of experience providing sophisticated minimally invasive surgical treatments for achalasia. In addition to performing advanced laparoscopic procedures such as Heller Myotomy, the current standard of care for treating achalasia, our physician experts are pioneers in performing Per Oral Endoscopic Myotomy (POEM). An innovative new incisionless procedure, POEM offers patients less pain and faster recovery. Our surgical team was among a select few to first perform POEM in the world and the first to offer this groundbreaking noninvasive surgical technique on the North Shore, since then we have successfully treated many patients.

Some cases of severe recurrent achalasia may require esophageal resection (also known as esophagectomy) to remove the entire esophagus. Our surgeons have extensive experience with this complex procedure and frequently perform it using minimally- invasive techniques.

For More Information

To schedule an appointment with one of our thoracic surgeons, please call 847.570.2868.