A cricopharyngeal spasm is a type of muscle spasm that occurs in your throat. Also called the upper esophageal sphincter (UES), the cricopharyngeal muscle is located at the top part of the esophagus. As part of your digestive system, the esophagus helps digest food and prevent acids from creeping up from the stomach.
It’s normal for your cricopharyngeal muscle to contract. In fact, this is what helps the esophagus moderate food and liquid intake. A spasm occurs with this type of muscle when it contracts too much. This is known as a hypercontraction state. While you can still swallow drinks and food, the spasms can make your throat feel uncomfortable.
With cricopharyngeal spasm, you will still be able to eat and drink. Discomfort tends to be highest in between beverages and meals.
Symptoms can include:
- choking sensations
- feeling like something is tightening around your throat
- sensation of a large object being stuck in your throat
- a lump that you can’t swallow or spit out
The symptoms of UES spasms disappear when you’re eating foods or liquids. This is because the related muscles are relaxed to help you eat and drink.
Also, symptoms of cricopharyngeal spasm tend to get worse throughout the day. Anxiety about the condition can aggravate your symptoms, too.
Cricopharyngeal spasms occur within cricoid cartilage in your throat. This area is located right at the top of the esophagus and at the bottom of the pharynx. The UES is responsible for preventing anything, like air, from reaching the esophagus in between drinks and meals. For this reason, the UES is constantly contracting to prevent air flow and stomach acids from reaching the esophagus.
Sometimes this natural protective measure can get off balance, and the UES can contract more than it’s supposed to. This results in notable spasms.
These types of spasms may be alleviated with simple home remedies. Changes to your eating habits are perhaps the most promising solution. By eating and drinking small amounts throughout the day, your UES may be in a more relaxed state for longer. This is compared with eating a couple of large meals throughout the day. Drinking an occasional glass of warm water may have similar effects.
Stress over UES spasms can increase your symptoms, so it’s important to relax if you can. Breathing techniques, guided meditation, and other relaxing activities may help.
For persistent spasms, your doctor may prescribe diazepam (Valium) or another type of muscle relaxant. Valium is used to treat anxiety, but it may also be helpful in calming stress related to throat spasms when taken temporarily. It’s also used to treat tremors and musculoskeletal injuries. Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, may also alleviate symptoms.
In addition to home remedies and medications, your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist. They can help you learn neck exercises to relax hypercontractions.
According to Laryngopedia, the symptoms of cricopharyngeal spasm tend to resolve on their own after around three weeks. In some cases, symptoms can last longer. You may need to see your doctor to rule out other possible causes of throat spasm to make sure you don’t have a more serious condition.
Complications and associated conditions
Complications from esophageal spasms are rare, according to the Cleveland Clinic. If you experience other symptoms, such as swallowing difficulties or chest pain, you might have an associated condition. Possibilities include:
- dysphagia (difficulty swallowing)
- gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or esophageal damage (stricture) caused by persistent heartburn
- other types of esophageal strictures caused by swelling, such as noncancerous growths
- neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease
- brain damage from related injuries or stroke
To rule out these conditions, your doctor may order one or more types of esophageal tests:
- Motility tests. These tests measure the overall strength and movement of your muscles.
- Endoscopy. A small light and camera are placed in your esophagus so your doctor can have a better look at the area.
- Manometry. This is the measurement of esophageal pressure waves.
Overall, a cricopharyngeal spasm isn’t a significant medical concern. It can cause some throat discomfort during periods when your esophagus is in a relaxed state, such as between meals. However, persistent discomfort from these spasms may need to be addressed by a doctor.
If the discomfort persists even while drinking and eating, the symptoms are likely to be related to another cause. You should see your doctor for a proper diagnosis.