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Lower Esophageal Sphincter Dysfunction: Everything You Need To Know

Lower Esophageal Sphincter Dysfunction: Everything You Need To Know

What Is the Lower Esophageal Sphincter?

Just like the other sphincters in our body, the lower esophageal sphincter acts like an automated gate or door. As the name suggests, this sphincter is located in the lower part of the esophagus, leading directly into the stomach. The lower esophageal sphincter works in coordination with the upper esophageal sphincter and the rest of the esophagus to move food down into our stomachs, and at the same time, prevent any contents of the stomach from coming back up. However, the lower esophageal sphincter is not always able to fulfill this function.

Lower esophageal sphincter dysfunction is a condition wherein the sphincter doesn’t work as intended, and either relaxes too much or doesn’t relax at all when it needs to. There are many factors that can affect or cause this condition. Causes range from something as simple and common as unhealthy eating habits, to more serious and complicated conditions such as stroke.

Some of these factors are:

Overeating

This refers to both the excessive frequency of ingesting food, and the excessive consumption of a certain type of food. Both can have a negative effect on the lower esophageal sphincter, increasing the risk of lower esophageal sphincter dysfunction.

Excessive Frequency

Gasses are released in the process of breaking down food in the stomach. Because the stomach’s openings are closed off during this process, pressure builds up inside, not unlike a pressure cooker. The problem arises when one eats too much and too frequently. This causes an excessive amount of gas and therefore pressure to build up in the stomach. This excess pressure damages the lower esophageal sphincter and may cause it to weaken over time.

Certain Food

Fat, Carbohydrate, and caffeine-rich food may also affect the sphincter.

  • Fats – Our bodies need to release stronger acidic compounds to break down fatty rich food. The frequent and increased production of such acids can weaken the sphincter.
  • Carbohydrates – Carbohydrates tend to produce a lot of gas not just during the breakdown process in the stomach, but also in the fermentation process in the intestines. This large amount of gas may cause excess pressure build up and damage the lower esophageal sphincter.
  • Caffeine – Food and/or drinks like coffee that are high in caffeine can cause muscles to relax and the lower esophageal sphincter is no exception.

Other Factors

Other factors such as certain medicines, drinking, or smoking too much may damage your muscles and therefore your esophageal sphincters.

Related Conditions

Lower esophageal sphincter dysfunction may also cause, or be caused by other conditions. These include:

Dysphagia

Lower esophageal sphincter dysfunction may cause dysphagia. Simply meaning swallowing difficulties, dysphagia is a condition where either the tongue, esophagus, or both, malfunction due to factors such as nerve damage. This can affect the muscle contractions in the esophagus, which causes the lower esophageal sphincter to close shut to prevent damage to the esophagus.

Symptoms of dysphagia may include:

  • Stomach reflux
  • Pain and difficulty during swallowing
  • Gagging sensation when swallowing
  • Vomiting
  • Being unable to swallow altogether

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

This is another condition caused by lower esophageal sphincter dysfunction. It is when frequent acid reflux flows from the stomach back into the esophagus. This condition is fairly common and treatable. However, if not properly treated, the frequent flow of stomach acid into the esophagus can cause irritation and even permanent damage to the lining of the esophagus. This can lead to worse problems like throat cancer.

Symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease may include:

  • Pain and difficulty during swallowing
  • Chest pain
  • Vomiting

Achalasia

Similar to the other gastroesophageal disorders, achalasia makes it difficult for the patient to swallow. It can cause other symptoms such as regurgitation. This condition is caused by intensive nerve damage, causing paralysis in the esophagus, and lower esophageal sphincter dysfunction. Because we rely on peristalsis, or muscle contractions that move food through the esophagus and into the stomach, to properly ingest food, the paralysis of the esophagus can cause us to lose the ability to swallow. It can also cause more serious issues such as aspiration pneumonia which occurs when items such as food and/or drinks go into the lungs instead of the esophagus. This causes infection and inflammation in the lungs.

Symptoms of achalasia may include:

  • Regurgitation of food and/or liquids such as saliva.
  • Acid reflux
  • Chest pain
  • Vomiting
  • Dysphagia

Key Takeaways

Lower esophageal sphincter dysfunction is a fairly common condition which can affect our ability to swallow, causing pain and inconvenience. While it is easily treatable in most cases, make sure to get treated right away, as ignoring it may cause serious consequences.

Learn about Other Digestive Health Issues here.

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Sources

Disorders of the Esophagus, https://aboutgimotility.org/learn-about-gi-motility/disorders-of-the-esophagus/, Accessed July 20, 2021

Disorders of the Lower Esophageal Sphincter, https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.me.26.020175.002105?journalCode=med, Accessed July 20, 2021

Dysphagia, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dysphagia/symptoms-causes/syc-20372028, Accessed July 20, 2021

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/gerd/symptoms-causes/syc-20361940, Accessed July 20, 2021

When Heartburn Signals Cancer Risk, https://www.mskcc.org/news/when-heartburn-signals-cancer-risk, Accessed July 20, 2021

Achalasia, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/achalasia/symptoms-causes/syc-20352850, Accessed July 20, 2021

What Is Aspiration Pneumonia, https://www.pennmedicine.org/for-patients-and-visitors/patient-information/conditions-treated-a-to-z/aspiration-pneumonia, Accessed July 20, 2021

The Role of Diet in the Development and Management of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease: Why We Feel the Burn, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6702398/, Accessed July 20, 2021

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Written by Giann Floresca Updated a week ago
Medically reviewed by Elfred Landas, MD