Oesophageal motility disorders encompass a broad class of diseases that are manifest by abnormal contractions of the oesophageal body as well as abnormal function of both the upper and lower oesophageal sphincters. Symptoms are quite variable, and can manifest as the sensation of food getting stuck, chest pain, or regurgitation. These disorders are notoriously difficult to assess on the basis of symptoms, and precise, reliable testing is critical to make the correct diagnosis.
- Dedicated oesophageal diagnostic laboratory run by Mr Geoff Kohn with integrated oesophageal function testing and endoscopy. This is the only Australian laboratory recognised by the The American Neurogastroenterology and Motility Society.
- State of the art diagnostic technology that allows for individualisation of the diagnostic evaluation to the patient’s specific circumstances
- Tailoring of the antireflux operation to the patient’s disease and physiology
- Extensive experience in re-operative procedures and remedial operations
Mechanism of Disease
The oesophagus is a muscular tube that connects the pharynx in the throat to the stomach. There are two sphincters at each end, an upper oesophageal sphincter and a lower oesophageal sphincter. With normal swallowing there is an incredible coordination of neural and muscular events for the food or liquid to efficiently pass from the mouth and into the stomach. Any dysfunction in this process can manifest as difficulty swallowing solids and liquids, regurgitation of undigested food, chest pain, and even heartburn.
Disorders related to the upper oesophageal sphincter or cricopharyngeal muscle are usually related to extremely high contraction of this muscle. This leads to difficulty swallowing, and over time can lead to an out-pouching above this sphincter known as a Zenker’s diverticulum.
Disorders related to the lower oesophageal sphincter can be due to either extremely high muscle contraction tone or extremely low contraction tone. If the sphincter tone is too high and does not open with swallowing, patients often experience difficulty passing food. This may be associated with complete loss of peristalsis in the body of the oesophagus in a condition known as achalasia. It may also be an isolated disorder that can be associated with an out-pouching of the oesophagus above it, known as an epiphrenic diverticulum. In some cases a hypertensive lower oesophageal sphincter can paradoxically occur in the setting of reflux disease. If the lower oesophageal sphincter tone is too low, uncontrolled reflux of gastric contents may occur. Other than in the setting of GORD, this finding may occur with some connective tissue disorders, such as scleroderma.
Motor disorders of the oesophagus can result in complete loss of peristalsis, as in achalasia, or decreased strength of contractions such as in ineffective oesophageal motility. These disorders usually manifest as difficulty swallowing both solids and liquids. In other disorders, such as in the setting of extremely high contractions of the oesophageal body or nutcracker oesophagus, chest pain is a predominant symptom.
Our surgeons supervise the diagnostic testing themselves, interpret the results directly, and perform their own endoscopies. This organ-centered approach allows the surgeon to comprehensively assess the patient, and therefore recommend the best treatment tailored to the individual patient. The high-tech diagnostic studies that are performed are always personally reviewed by the thoracic surgeons, as experience has shown that subtle findings are sometimes missed by the automatic reports generated by the computer.
Oesophageal manometry is a diagnostic test that uses tiny transducers or receivers that are integrated into a thin tube that is inserted into the oesophagus to measure pressure. This device is used to measure the LOS length and resting pressure, its ability to relax with swallowing, the contractile strength and coordination of the oesophageal body, and the upper oesophageal sphincter characteristics.
A video oesophagram is an X-ray study that is performed radiologists. with a focus in oesophageal disorders. During this examination, the patient is asked to swallow barium liquid while a special x-ray machine videotapes the clearance of the swallowed material. This gives additional information regarding the function of the oesophagus. It also provides information regarding any anatomic abnormalities that may be present, such as strictures, a hiatal hernia, or a diverticulum or out-pouching of the oesophagus.
Upper endoscopy is a critical component of assessing a patient for GORD, and our surgeons are keenly interested in performing this procedure to visualise the oesophagus and stomach for evidence of injury related to GORD. In addition, anatomic details critical for pre-operative planning may be observed during this procedure, such as strictures or a hiatal hernia. Endoscopy also allows the surgeon to assess patients for potential reasons for anaemia related to a paraoesophageal hernia. Finally, GORD can cause a pre-cancerous condition known as Barrett’s oesophagus and even cancer itself, so the endoscopic examination allows the surgeon to ensure that these potentially life-threatening complications of GORD have not occurred.
Depending on the specific oesophageal motility disorder that is diagnosed, either medical therapy or surgical therapy may be recommended. The most common oesophageal motility disorder is achalasia, a condition in which the lower oesophageal sphincter does not open or relax appropriately when a patient swallows. It is also associated with loss of peristalsis in the oesophageal body. There are several options for achalasia, including medical therapy, endoscopic therapy, and surgery.
Medical options for achalasia include medications that help relax smooth muscle in the body, such as calcium channel blockers or GTN, drugs that are more commonly used for cardiovascular disease. Outcomes with use of these medications have been disappointing, and are rarely used as the sole means of treatment.
Endoscopic techniques are available for achalasia treatment. The least invasive but also least durable option is endoscopic injection of Botox into the lower oesophageal sphincter. This relaxes the muscle and gives some improvement in the sensation of dysphagia or difficulty swallowing. The main drawback is that the medication wears off and does not last more than a few months. In addition, repeated therapy can result in scarring that can make future surgery more complex.
Another endoscopic option is dilatation, which is done with a specially designed balloon that is inflated to rupture the lower oesophageal sphincter. This has been a good option for patients who are too high risk of definitive surgery. One issue, however, is that the effect is not as durable as surgery, and repeat procedures are usually necessary. For this reason balloon dilatation is usually not recommended for younger patients. Another concern is the risk of oesophageal perforation.
The surgical option for achalasia is an operation known as a Heller myotomy, which is usually done laparoscopically or through a few tiny incisions in the abdominal wall. This operation involves precise cutting of the thick, noncompliant lower oesophageal sphincter to allow it to permanently open up, and is considered to the gold standard for treatment of this condition. It is accompanied by a partial antireflux procedure known as a partial fundoplication to prevent uncontrolled reflux.
The two main treatment options remain balloon dilatation or laparoscopic Heller myotomy. Medical therapy and botox injection are considered temporary treatments that are not definitive. The main difference between balloon dilatation and surgical myotomy is durability. Dilatation can effect good short term outcomes, but usually require re-intervention to maintain its effect, whereas surgery is more definitive. Long term follow up for several decades of patients who have undergone this operation has revealed excellent durability.