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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

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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.

R-CPD Webinar

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R-CPD (no-burp) Webinar

Live R-CPD (no-burp) Webinar hosted by Dr. Bastian on July 26, 2022 at 6 p.m. CST

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R-CPD Q&A—Part I

Dr. Bastian answers a list of questions submitted by our R-CPD Webinar attendees.

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R-CPD Q&A—Part II

In Part 2 of the R-CPD Q&A, Dr. Bastian answers a list of questions submitted by our R-CPD Webinar attendees.

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.

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R-CPD frog icon

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.
R-CPD Bloating icon

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.

R-CPD Flatulence leaf blower icon

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.

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Other Common Symptoms

Nausea

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

Hypersalivation

when symptoms of bloating are major.

Painful hiccups

again, more commonly after eating.

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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.

Anxiety & social inhibition

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

Shortness of breath

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

constipation

(Still under evaluation): Flatulence can’t always be responded to, and the result is descending colon appears to dilate, making stretched muscles in its wall less effective in moving colon contents along.

Where Do Patients Come From?

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No-burpers turned burpers!

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.

 

Botox Injection at Bastian Voice Institute

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.

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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.

Can’t Burp: Progression of Bloating and Abdominal Distention – a Daily Cycle for Many with R-CPD

This young woman has classic R-CPD symptoms—the can’t burp syndrome. Early in the day, her symptoms are least, and abdomen at “baseline” because she has “deflated” via flatulence through the night.  In this series you see the difference in her abdominal distention between early and late in the day.  The xray images show the remarkable amount of air retained that explains her bloating and distention.  Her progression is quite typical; some with R-CPD distend even more than shown here especially after eating a large meal or consuming anything carbonated.

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Side view of a bloated abdomen (1 of 6)

Early in the day, side view of the abdomen shows mild distention. The patient’s discomfort is minimal at this time of day as compared with later.

Mild distension (2 of 6)

Also early in the day, a front view, showing again mild distention.

Front view (3 of 6)

Late in the same day, another side view to compare with photo 1. Accumulation of air in stomach and intestines is distending the abdominal wall.

Another view (4 of 6)

Also late in the day, the front view to compare with photo 2, showing considerably more distention. The patient is quite uncomfortable, bloated, and feels ready to “pop.” Flatulence becomes more intense this time of day, and will continue through the night.

X-ray of trapped air (5 of 6)

Antero-posterior xray of the chest shows a very large stomach air bubble (at *) and the descending colon is filled with air (arrow).

Side view (6 of 6)

A lateral view chest xray shows again the large amount of excess air in the stomach and intestines that the patient must rid herself of via flatulence, typically including through the night, in order to begin the cycle again the next day.

A Rare “abdominal crisis” Due to R-CPD (inability to burp)

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X-Ray of Abdominal Bloating (1 of 2)

This young man had an abdominal crisis related to R-CPD. He has had lifelong symptoms of classic R-CPD: inability to burp, gurgling, bloating, and flatulence. During a time of particular discomfort, he unfortunately took a “remedy” that was carbonated. Here you see a massive stomach air bubble. A lot of his intestines are air-filled and pressed up and to his right (left of photo, at arrow). The internal pressure within his abdomen also shut off his ability to pass gas. Note arrow pointing to lack of gas in the descending colon/rectum. NG decompression of his stomach allowed him to resume passing gas, returning him to his baseline “daily misery” of R-CPD.

X-Ray of Abdominal Bloating (2 of 2)

X-Ray without markings
Play Video about R-CPD in X-ray Pictures: Misery vs. Crisis from Inability to Burp

Shortness of Breath Caused by No-Burp (R-CPD)

Persons who can’t burp and have the full-blown R-CPD syndrome often say that when the bloating and distention are particularly bad—and especially when they have a sense of chest pressure, they also have a feeling of shortness of breath. They’ll say, for example, “I’m a [singer, or runner, or cyclist or _____], but my ability is so diminished by R-CPD.  If I’m competing or performing I can’t eat or drink for 6 hours beforehand.”  Some even say that they can’t complete a yawn when symptoms are particularly bad.  The xrays below explain how inability to burp can cause shortness of breath.

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X-ray of trapped air (1 of 2)

In this antero-posterior xray, one can see that there is so much air in the abdomen, that the diaphragm especially on the left (right of xray) is lifted up, effectively diminishing the volume of the chest cavity and with it, the size of a breath a person can take.

Side view (2 of 2)

The lateral view again shows the line of the thin diaphragmatic muscle above the enormous amount of air in the stomach. The diaphragm inserts on itself so that when it contracts it flattens. That action sucks air into the lungs and simultaneously pushes abdominal contents downward. But how can the diaphragm press down all the extra air? It can’t fully, and the inspiratory volume is thereby diminished. The person says “I can’t get a deep breath.”

Esophageal Findings

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Aortic shelf (1 of 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.

Bony spur emerges due to stretched esophagus (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.

Stretched esophagus due to unburpable air (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 (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

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

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.

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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Posterior pharyngeal wall (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.

Is it R-CPD? (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.

Stretched esophagus indicates R-CPD (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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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.”

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.

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.

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