Cricopharyngeal spams occur when the cricopharyngeal muscle (located in the throat) contracts too much. Though the condition is usually considered harmless, it can still cause uncomfortable symptoms, such as feeling like something is stuck in your throat. Treatments include dietary changes, breathing techniques or muscle relaxants.
The cricopharyngeal muscle — sometimes called the upper esophageal sphincter (UES) — is located at the top portion of your esophagus (food pipe). This muscle contracts to open and close the esophagus, allowing food and liquid to pass through. In people with cricopharyngeal spasm, this muscle contracts too much. When this happens, you can still swallow but your throat feels uncomfortable.
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People with cricopharyngeal spasm describe feeling as though a large object is stuck in their throat. This can be accompanied by choking or tightening sensations. Cricopharyngeal spasm pain is usually worse between meals. Symptoms tend to disappear while you’re eating or drinking.
Cricopharyngeal spasm can affect people of all ages, even children. The condition may be related to other health issues, such as acid reflux, inflammatory problems or neurological issues. It’s estimated that over 5% of people who have serious strokes will develop cricopharyngeal spasm to some degree.
Experts still don’t understand the full range of cricopharyngeal spasm causes. But the primary known factors include:
Cricopharyngeal symptoms can range from mild to severe. They may include:
Yes. Anxiety can cause a number of physical symptoms — and throat tightness is one of the most common. People with cricopharyngeal spasm may have flare-ups during times of stress.
The symptoms above usually go away when you’re eating or drinking. They can also worsen when you’re stressed. Even though many people with cricopharyngeal spasm feel restriction in their throat, they can still swallow normally. In contrast, people with other, similar conditions may develop dysphagia (difficulty swallowing).
Your healthcare provider will perform an assessment and talk with you about your symptoms. They’ll check the back of your throat for something called an esophageal diverticulum. This is a pocket that forms in the esophageal lining. It can develop if cricopharyngeal spasm goes untreated for a long time. Food and saliva can collect in this pouch.
Your medical team may also run some tests to confirm your diagnosis. These may include:
Management depends on the cause and severity of your symptoms. Cricopharyngeal spasm treatments include:
In very rare instances, surgery may be necessary. During this procedure, your surgeon makes cuts in the cricopharyngeal muscle so it doesn’t contract too much.
In addition to medical treatments, there are also ways to manage cricopharyngeal spasm symptoms at home. For example:
In most cases, people with cricopharyngeal spasm notice improvement in about three weeks. Everyone is unique, however, and this timeline can vary for each person.
Sometimes, just being aware of the problem is helpful. Once cricopharyngeal spasm is diagnosed, people may become less anxious and experience symptoms less often.
Cricopharyngeal spasm can’t always be prevented. But treating the underlying cause — such as acid reflux, neurological issues or inflammatory conditions — can help reduce your risk. Additionally, managing stress and anxiety can be instrumental in easing your symptoms.
Most of the time, cricopharyngeal spasms go away on their own. You may experience flare-ups during times of stress, but learning to manage your symptoms can help improve your quality of life.
If you’ve had symptoms lasting longer than three weeks, schedule a consultation with your healthcare provider. They may run some tests to rule out other, more serious conditions.
It could mean that your cricopharyngeal muscle is contracting. Throat twitches may also be related to esophageal spasms, acid reflux or other conditions.
Swallowing helps to relax the cricopharyngeal muscle. This is why eating and drinking seems to temporarily ease symptoms. You can also try these exercises for cricopharyngeal spasm:
Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider before incorporating any exercises into your daily routine.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Cricopharyngeal spasms are usually not a serious medical concern. However, they can be quite uncomfortable. Learning relaxation techniques and physical therapy exercises can help reduce your symptoms. If your symptoms persist, schedule an appointment with an ear, nose and throat specialist. They can determine the root cause of your condition and recommend a personalized treatment plan.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/07/2021.
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