Can’t Burp? Comprehensive Resources for R-CPD (in One Place)

Can't Burp?

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R-CPD

Inability to belch or “burp” (Also known as Retrograde Cricopharyngeus Dysfunction, or R-CPD for short) occurs when the upper esophageal sphincter (cricopharyngeus muscle) loses its ability to relax in order to release the “bubble” of air. 

Overview of R-CPD

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. Common symptoms include the inability to belch, gurgling noises, chest/abdominal pressure and bloating, and flatulence.

Can't burp
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Symptoms of R-CPD

The Big Four Symptoms Of R-CPD That Provide Virtually 100% Accuracy In Diagnosis

Inability to burp

This is almost always, but not exclusively “lifelong,” though persons may not recognize this as a “problem” or “difference from others” until early childhood or teenage years.

Socially awkward gurgling noises

This is almost always, but not exclusively “lifelong,” though persons may not recognize this as a “problem” or “difference from others” until early childhood or teenage years. These noises can be mostly quiet and “internal,” but more often are loud enough to be embarrassing. Mouth opening makes them louder. Almost everyone says they are easily heard several feet away; not infrequently “all the way to the door.” They engender social anxiety in most persons with R-CPD, causing some to avoid eating or drinking for hours before social occasions and even during them. Carbonation makes them much worse and is to be avoided at all costs. Some more colorful patient descriptions:

  • Symphony of gurgles
  • Croaking frogs
  • Creaking floorboards
  • Dinosaur sounds
  • Strangled whale.

Bloating & Pressure

Most common location is high central abdomen. Distention is common, especially later in the day. Using pregnancy as an analogy even in men, the usual degree of distention is described as “3 or 4 months.” “Six months” is not rare, and one slender young man was “full term.” Almost as often as abdominal distress, patients describe chest pressure, and for some that is the worst symptom. Some have pressure in the low neck. While “pressure” is the frequent descriptor, some experience occasional sharp pain in abdomen, back, or between shoulder blades. Some have to lie down after eating to find some relief.

Flatulence

Routinely, this is described as “major,” or even “ridiculous.” Flatulence increases as the day progresses, and many experience it into the night. When around others, some scan their surroundings at all times for a place they can go briefly to pass gas. Understandably, the social ramifications of this problem can also be major.

Other Common Symptoms

Nausea

especially after eating larger than normal amounts or drinking carbonated beverages.

Hypersalivation

when symptoms of bloating are major.

Excessive Flatulence
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Inability to Vomit

A few simply cannot vomit; more often it is possible but only after strenuous retching. Vomiting (spontaneous or self-induced) always begins with a very loud noise and major release of air in a phenomenon we call “air vomiting.” Emetophobia can be major.

Painful hiccups

again, more commonly after eating.

Anxiety & social inhibition

This can be MAJOR due to gurgling, flatulence, and discomfort.

Descending colon dilates

(Still under evaluation): The question is whether this occurs over time if flatulence cannot be responded to, so that muscular effectiveness is diminished.

Shortness of breath

A person can be so full of air that athletics, or even ability to climb stairs, etc. are impaired.

Where Do Patients Come From?

What Causes R-CPD?

Inability to burp or belch occurs when the upper esophageal sphincter (cricopharyngeus muscle) cannot 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,” 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 and 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 can’t. 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.

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 belch. 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.

Photo Essays

Abdominal Distention of R-CPD

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Gastric Air Bubble (1 of 3)

This abdominal xray of an individual with R-CPD shows a remarkably large gastric air bubble (dotted line), and also excessive air in transverse (T) and descending (D) colon. All of this extra air can cause abdominal distention that increases as the day progresses.

Bloated Abdomen (2 of 3)

Flatulence in the evening and even into the night returns the abdomen to normal, but the cycle repeats the next day. To ask patients their degree of abdominal distention, we use pregnancy as an analogy in both men and women. Not everyone describes this problem. Most, however, say that late in the day they appear to be “at least 3 months pregnant.” Some say “6 months” or even “full term.” In a different patient with untreated R-CPD, here is what her abdomen looked like late in every day. Her abdomen bulges due to all of the air in her GI tract, just as shown in Photo 1.

Non-bloated Abdomen (3 of 3)

The same patient, a few weeks after Botox injection. She is now able to burp. Bloating and flatulence are remarkably diminished, and her abdomen no longer balloons towards the end of every day.

Esophageal Findings

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Reperti esofagei (1 di 3)

A view of the mid-esophagus in a young person (early 30’s). The esophagus is kept open by the patient’s un-burped air. Note the “aortic shelf” at A, delineated by dotted lines.

Esophageal Findings (2 of 3)

A moment later, additional air is pushed upwards from the stomach to dilate the mid-esophagus even more. A bony “spur” in the spine is thrown into high relief by the stretched esophagus.

Esophageal Findings (3 of 3)

A view of the upper esophagus (from just below the cricopharyngeus muscle sphincter) shows what appears to be remarkable lateral dilation (arrows) caused over time by the patient’s unburpable air. Dilation can only occur laterally due to confinement of the esophagus by trachea (anteriorly) and spine (posteriorly), as marked.

More Interesting Esophageal Findings of R-CPD (Inability to Burp)

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Stretched Esophagus

Stretched Esophagus (1 of 4)

Using a 3.7mm ENT scope with no insufflated air, note the marked dilation of the esophagus by swallowed air the patient is unable to belch. T = trachea; A = aortic shelf; S = spine
posterior wall of the trachea

Tracheal Wall (2 of 4)

The posterior wall of the trachea (T) is better seen here from a little higher in the esophagus. A = aorta
stretched esophagus

Over-dilation (3 of 4)

The photo is rotated clockwise at a moment when air from below is pushed upward so as to transiently over-dilate the esophagus. Note that the esophagus is almost stretching around the left side of the trachea in the direction of the arrow.
left mainstem bronchus is made visible

Bronchus (4 of 4)

Now deeper in the esophagus (with it inflated throughout the entire examination by the patient’s own air), it even appears that the left mainstem bronchus (B) is made visible by esophageal dilation stretching around it.

R-CPD and Esophageal Dilation

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between posterior pharyngeal wall and arytenoid eminences

(1 of 3)

Here, in the panoramic view of the "bottom of the throat," between posterior pharyngeal wall (marked PPW) and arytenoid eminences (A). The airway is indicated by the short arrow, and the dotted line shows the waiting "entrance" to the upper esophagus just above the CPM. The "entrance" opens for a second to permit passage of food or liquid through the sphincter and into the upper esophagus. The * is for reference with photo 2.
entrance to the esophagus

(2 of 3)

At the entrance to the esophagus, at closer range. Notice that the mucosa is redundant, a common but not universal finding in R-CPD.
upper esophagus

(3 of 3)

Now the view is within the upper esophagus. It almost appears that the lumen is dilated, especially in a lateral direction (arrows). Purely speculatively, one wonders if constant forcing of air upwards again a barrier ( the non-relaxing cricopharynxgeus muscle, aka upper esophageal sphincter), dilates the esophagus over time. Certainly, many with R-CPD experience not only gurgling, but also chest pressure and even pain that may be from "stretching" of the esophagus.

What the Esophagus Can Look Like “Below A Burp”

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Mid-esophagus of a person with R-CPD

Baseline (1 of 3)

Mid-esophagus of a person with R-CPD who is now burping well after Botox injection into the cricopharyngeus muscle many months earlier. The esophagus remains somewhat open likely due to esophageal stretching from the years of being unable to burp and also a “coming burp.”
esophagus dilates abruptly

Pre-burp (2 of 3)

A split-second before a successful burp the esophagus dilates abruptly from baseline (photo 1) as the excess air briefly enlarges the esophagus. An audible burp occurs at this point.
burp in the esophagus

Post-burp (3 of 3)

The burp having just happened, the esophagus collapses to partially closed as the air that was “inflating it” has been released.

Additional Resources

Read this initial peer-reviewed article on this condition, written by Dr. Bastian and colleague.

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