Inability to burp or belch

Inability to burp or belch occurs when the upper esophageal sphincter (cricopharyngeus muscle) loses its ability to relax in order to release the “bubble” of air. The sphincter is a muscular valve that encircles the upper end of the esophagus just below the lower end of the throat passage. If looking from the front at a person’s neck, it is just below the “Adam’s / Eve’s apple” and more specifically, directly behind the cricoid cartilage. If you care to see this on a model, look at the photo below. That sphincter muscle relaxes for about a second every time we swallow saliva, food, or drink. All of the rest of the time it is contracted. Whenever a person belches, the same sphincter needs to let go for a split second in order for the excess air to escape upwards. In other words, just as it is necessary  that the sphincter “let go” to admit food and drink downwards in the normal act swallowing, it is also necessary that the sphincter be able to “let go” to release air upwards for belching.

People who cannot release air upwards are miserable.  They can feel the “bubble” sitting at the mid to low neck with nowhere to go. Or they experience gurgling when air comes up the esophagus only to find that the way of escape is blocked by a non-relaxing sphincter.  It is as though the muscle of the esophagus continually churns and squeezes without success. The person so wants and needs to burp, but continues to experience this inability to burp.  Sometimes this can even be painful.  Such people often experience abdominal bloating as the air must make its way through the intestines before finally being released as flatus.

Approaches for treating the inability to burp:

For people who experience this problem to the point of discomfort and reduced quality of life, here is one approach: First, a videofluoroscopic swallow study, perhaps with effervescent granules.  This establishes that the sphincter works normally in a forward (antegrade) swallowing direction, but not in a reverse (retrograde) burping or regurgitating fashion.  Along with the symptoms described above, this establishes the diagnosis of retrograde-only cricopharyngeus dysfunction (non-relaxation).

Second, a treatment trial involving placement of Botox into the malfunctioning sphincter muscle. The desired effect of Botox in muscle is to weaken it for at least several months.  The person thus has many weeks to verify that the problem is solved or at least minimized. The Botox injection could potentially be done in an office setting, but we recommend the first time (at least) placing it during a very brief general anesthetic in an outpatient operating room.  That’s because the first time, it is important to answer the question definitively, that is, that the sphincter’s inability to relax when presented with a bubble of air from below, is the problem.

For a few months at least, patients should experience dramatic relief of their symptoms.  And, early experience suggests that It may be that this single Botox injection allows the system to “reset” and the person may never lose his or her ability to burp.  Of course, if the problem returns, the individual could elect to pursue additional Botox treatments, or in a truly severe case, might even elect to undergo endoscopic laser cricopharyngeus myotomy.


Photos of the cricopharyngeus muscle:

1. The highlighted oval represents the location of the cricopharyngeus muscle.
2. The cricopharyngeus muscle in the open position.
3. The cricopharyngeus muscle in the contracted position.
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Foreign body

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Idiopathic subglottic stenosis

A subtype of subglottic stenosis that is inflammatory.  One view is that this entity is actually a limited expression of Wegener’s Granulomatosis (aka Granulomatosis with polyangiitis).

Podcast:


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Subglottic stenosis

Subglottic stenosis is narrowing just below the vocal cords, in the lowest part of the larynx and immediately above the first tracheal ring. Examples of causes include scarring from a breathing tube used during a long ICU stay, Wegener’s Granulomatosis (aka Granulomatosis with polyangiitis), and idiopathic subglottic stenosis (aka limited Wegener’s Granulomatosis).


Photos of subglottic stenosis:

Open epidermoid cyst

An open epidermoid cyst can be seen when an epidermoid cyst spontaneously ruptures, but still retains some of the accumulated keratin; in this case, the cyst’s outline may be more subtle, and usually assumes an oval shape with the long axis oriented anteriorly and posteriorly. An open cyst may also produce a mottled appearance.


Photos of open epidermoid cyst:

HPV 33 & 45

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Indicator Lesions

Indicator lesions are visual findings of vibratory injury in a person who has no current voice complaints, and whose “swelling checks” are normal.

Background:

Individuals who fit the “vocal overdoer profile” may only notice vocal limitations caused by vibratory injury on an occasional and transient basis. These episodes may be brushed off as insignificant, because they are so brief, and recovery so complete. Even while asymptomatic, however, such individuals may have subtle visual findings of vibratory injury—“Indicator lesions.” Unless discovered during a screening examination for entry to music studies, the individual may be unaware of these findings. What if indicator lesions are found? Suggested responses:

1. Make sure the individual understands that these are indicator lesions and as such constitute a “yellow flag” suggesting at least occasional overuse of voice.

2. Define the “vocal overdoer syndrome” for the person as the combination of and interaction between an expressive, talkative, extroverted personality and a “vocally busy” life. Said another way, there may be both intrinsic, personality-based and extrinsic, vocal commitment based reasons that amount and forcefulness of voice may be excessive. A 7-point talkativeness scale can be used to estimate the intrinsic risk, where “1” represents Clint Eastwood, “4” the averagely talkative person, and “7” the life of the party. The extrinsic risk is addressed by making a list of vocal commitments such as for occupation, childcare, hobbies, social activities, religious practice, athletics/ sports, and rehearsal and performance.

3. Discuss the symptom complex of mucosal injury: a) loss/ impairment of high, pianissimo singing; b) day-to-day variability of vocal clarity and capability; c) a sense of increased effort to produce voice; d) reduced mucosal endurance, or becoming “tired” vocally from amount/ manner of voice use that does not seem to induce this in others; and e) phonatory onset delays—the slight hiss of air that precedes the beginning of the sound, especially if high and soft. Speaking voice hoarseness can be a fairly late and gross symptom of mucosal injury.

4. Talk about managing the amount, manner, and spacing of voice use to reduce unnecessary wear and tear on the vocal cord mucosa.

5. Teach vocal cord swelling checks as a means of detecting even subtle injury. Respond to what they tell you!

Singers are understandably distressed when they discover even the tiniest mucosal swelling such as indicator lesions. That is because for true singers, singing is not just what they do; the term “singer” also defines who they are. So injury threatens both activity and identity. Consequently, discuss indicator lesions with great care and sensitivity. Keep in mind that some doctors speak of “small vocal nodules that do not interfere with singing.” Small nodules that are but a tiny step above indicator lesions, especially when spicule-shaped rather than fusiform, always exact a penalty to the singing voice (see #3 above), but limitations can often be concealed by warming up, and singing more loudly. Singers often say “I have a big voice that doesn’t do pianissimo.” That is, pp becomes p; mp becomes p; mf becomes f; and so forth. Alternatively, the singer considers the missing pianissimo to be a technical fault.


Photos of Indicator Lesions:

Vocal cord synechia

Vocal cord synechia is a strand of scar tissue that tethers the vocal cords to each other. It can prevent the vocal cords from opening fully for breathing.

A synechia can also form in other parts of the body. (Note the subglottic synechia shown below.)


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Videos:

Vocal Cord Synechia
This video provides a clear example — using laryngeal videostroboscopy — of a vocal cord synechia.

Recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP) and other HPV-induced lesions

A disorder in which wart-like tumors or other lesions grow recurrently within a person’s airway. These growths are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), and they may occur anywhere in a person’s airway, such as on the vocal cords (by far the most common site), in the supraglottic larynx, or in the trachea. If these growths are removed, they will almost always grow back, or recur; hence, “recurrent respiratory papillomatosis.”

Symptoms and risks of recurrent respiratory papillomatosis:

RRP can be life-threatening in young children, if not carefully followed and treated, since a child’s airway is relatively narrow and can potentially be obstructed completely by the disease’s proliferative growths; moreover, RRP in children tends to grow and recur more aggressively. In adults, RRP will usually only impair voice function (when the growths occur on the vocal cords), though it can also impair breathing in severe cases. Occasionally, RRP can also progress to cancer, and therefore patients found to be at high risk for this (see below) need to be monitored carefully.

Characteristics of the growths:

The growths usually associated with RRP are wart-like tumors, or papillomas, that protrude conspicuously from the surface on which they grow, often in grape-like clusters. These kinds of papillomas are usually seen in patients who have HPV subtypes 6 or 11, which are both lower-risk subtypes for incurring cancer. There are some HPV patients, however, who manifest their HPV infection with subtler, velvety growths within the airway—“carpet-variant” growths, so to speak. Although these “carpet-variant” growths do not have the wart-like appearance of the papillomas typically associated with RRP, there at least a few key points of similarity:

  1. Both the “carpet-variant” and wart-like growths are lesions that sometimes appear, either independently or together, in patients who have HPV;
  2. Both the “carpet-variant” and wart-like growths are stippled with polka-dot vascular markings, because each “loop” in the “carpet” or each “grape” in the wart-like cluster has its own fibrovascular core, seen as a red dot;
  3. Both the “carpet-variant” and wart-like growths can disrupt voice function;
  4. Both the “carpet-variant” and wart-like growths usually recur if they are removed.

Because of these similarities, we consider these “carpet-variant” growths, even when the sole expression of the infection, to be at least a cousin to RRP, within the family of HPV-induced lesions. Many patients with this “carpet-variant” condition have HPV subtypes such as 16 or 18 that are higher-risk for cancer; such patients need to be monitored with particular care.

Treatment for recurrent respiratory papillomatosis:

The primary treatment for RRP and other HPV-induced lesions is careful, conservative surgical removal of the growths. Because these growths almost always recur, surgery must usually be performed on a repeated basis, as frequently as every few weeks in children, but on average much less often in adults. A common interval between surgeries for adult patients is between every six months and every two years, depending on how quickly the RRP or other HPV-related lesion recurs and impairs the patient’s voice function again. There are also a few medical treatments that have been used in addition to surgery, including, among others, interferon, indole-3-carbinol, intralesional mumps or MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine, cidofovir, and bevacizumab.


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Videos:

Papillomas of the Larynx and Trachea
This video shows wart-like growths in the voicebox and windpipe (larynx and trachea) caused by chronic infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Pulsed-KTP Laser Coagulation of Vocal Cord Papillomas
See a video demonstration of laser coagulation of vocal cord papillomas.