Jul 20, 2022 What to Know About Motility Disorders

Ellen Stein, MD (center), speaks with colleagues

Swallowing problems and other issues with the esophagus are common, but treatment can resolve these potentially dangerous conditions.

When you eat and drink, gravity does most of the work to move food and liquid down the chute-like esophagus into the stomach. “That’s why we sit upright to eat,” says Ellen Stein, MD, Associate Professor and Director of Motility at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) and Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

Ellen Stein, MD
Ellen Stein, MD

But even without a gravity assist, muscles in the esophagus contract to give the tube its own motion, or motility. Esophageal motility helps things go down and explains why astronauts have no trouble eating in space.

When people have difficulty swallowing food and drink properly or regurgitate it back into the throat, they may have a potentially serious problem known as an esophageal motility disorder. “These are people who should be seen by a doctor,” Dr. Stein says.

Here are key facts you should know about motility disorders and how to resolve them:

Motility Disorders Have Many Problems. or not hard enough, causing a swallowing problem called dysphagia. The esophagus may spasm, preventing food from moving down. It may become inflamed, leading to narrowing and strictures. Or esophageal muscles can become weak so they’re less able to propel food along.

In a disorder known as achalasia, neurological problems prevent the lower esophageal sphincter between the esophagus and stomach from working properly, preventing food from going down.

In a common problem called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), the lower esophageal sphincter becomes weakened, allowing stomach acid and food contents to come back up the throat. Being overweight can trigger GERD by increasing pressure on the abdomen. An estimated 20 percent of Americans have GERD, and numbers are increasing as the population becomes increasingly obese, says Dr. Stein. GERD also can result from a hiatal hernia, in which part of the stomach bulges through an opening in the abdominal diaphragm.

Other conditions that can cause esophageal dysfunction include infectious diseases such as Chagas disease and underlying health issues such as scleroderma and rheumatoid arthritis.

Symptoms Vary. Different underlying causes can trigger a range of symptoms. You may experience difficulty swallowing, chest pain and discomfort, regurgitation, acid reflux, heartburn, vomiting, weight loss, poor sleep or anxiety. While occasional symptoms may not bother some people, persistent, recurring symptoms can become highly disruptive and interfere with proper nourishment.

Preventative Measures May Help. Not all esophageal motility disorders are preventable, but a healthy lifestyle can help people avoid conditions such as GERD. “Reflux disease has risk factors,” Dr. Stein says. “These include smoking, drinking too much alcohol, being overweight, consuming problematic items such as spicy or fatty foods or drinks, eating large meals or eating late at night.”

Treatments Depend On Cause. A range of treatments for underlying causes are available at the RWJUH Center for Digestive Diseases, including advanced endoscopy, which uses state-of-the-art technology to view esophageal function and perform procedures inside the body. Specific treatments depend on what’s triggering the problem and may include medications for muscle spasms or heartburn, dietary and lifestyle changes, or endoscopic or surgical procedures.

For achalasia, doctors can inject botulinum toxin (Botox) to relax the lower esophageal sphincter; stretch the muscle with a dilation procedure; or cut the muscle in a procedure called myotomy.

GERD patients can take medications such as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) and make dietary and other lifestyle changes, including exercising, stopping smoking, eating smaller meals, avoiding late-night snacking, cutting back on spicy or acidic foods and drinks, and drinking less alcohol. Endoscopic or surgical procedures can repair or tighten the valve that allows stomach contents to creep up the esophagus, and can repair hiatal hernias.

Motility Problems Should Be Evaluated. Seek medical attention for evaluation and proper treatment if you have trouble swallowing. Call 911 or go to the emergency room if you have chest pain: It may be a heart attack. But if chest pain isn’t explained by a heart condition, ask your physician about a possible esophageal motility disorder such as spasm or reflux.

Over-the-counter medications may help quell occasional heartburn. But if heartburn is frequent or persistent, consult a physician to get the condition under better control. “Anybody who’s having reflux or heartburn symptoms more than two or three times a week should talk to their doctor about their symptoms,” Dr. Stein says. “Likewise, if you’ve been taking a proton pump inhibitor medication and still need it after six months, you should consult your doctor.”

What Is Motility?

Gastrointestinal (GI) motility refers to the body’s movement of food not only through the esophagus, but also through the entire GI tract, including the stomach, small and large intestines and pelvic floor.

Motility problems caused by abnormal nerve or muscle function can trigger a variety of conditions depending on where in the body they occur. Intestinal motility disorders, for example, can cause bloating, nausea, diarrhea, abdominal discomfort and weight loss. Gastric motility disorders of the stomach can cause conditions such as gastroparesis and dumping syndrome. Pelvic floor motility disorders can cause problems with bowel movements.

To learn more about treatments for motility disorders including advanced endoscopy at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, call 888.MD.RWJUH (888-637-9584).