Failure of the tonically contracted upper esophageal sphincter to relax and open when one swallows. Cricopharyngeal dysfunction is also known as cricopharyngeal achalasia. The cause is usually unknown.

The upper esophageal sphincter is also known as the cricopharyngeus muscle and is located at the lower level of the voicebox or larynx. This muscle is always contracted except at the moment of swallowing, when it relaxes briefly to let food or liquid pass through.

Symptoms and treatment for cricopharyngeal dysfunction:

Typically, individuals with cricopharyngeal dysfunction first notice that pills or solid food begin to lodge at the level of the lower part of the larynx. The problem tends to progress inexorably, though often slowly, as the years pass, until the individual must limit himself or herself to liquid and soft foods. Cricopharyngeal dysfunction is fully resolved through a straightforward surgical procedure (cricopharyngeal myotomy), performed through the mouth with the laser or, only occasionally, through a neck incision. See also: Zenker’s diverticulum.


Photos:

Cricopharyngeal Dysfunction, Before and After Myotomy

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Cricopharyngeal dysfunction: before myotomy (1 of 2)

Lateral x-ray of the neck while swallowing barium (seen as a dark column). The non-relaxing cricopharyngeus muscle (light-grey bulge outlined by a dotted line) is causing narrowing of the upper esophageal passageway, as highlighted by the narrowed stream of dark barium at that point (arrow). Liquids and very soft foods can squeak through this narrow opening, but solid foods tend to get stuck.

Cricopharyngeal dysfunction: after myotomy, resolved (2 of 2)

After myotomy. The surgically divided muscle can no longer narrow the upper esophageal passageway, as seen by the widened stream of dark barium at the level of the muscle (arrows).
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Cricopharyngeal dysfunction: before myotomy (1 of 2)

Lateral x-ray of the neck while swallowing barium (the dark material seen here in the throat). The non-relaxing cricopharyngeus muscle (light-grey bulge outlined by a dotted line) is causing narrowing of the upper esophageal passageway, as highlighted by the narrowed stream of dark barium at that point (arrow). Liquids and very soft foods can squeak through this narrow opening, but solid foods tend to get stuck.

Cricopharyngeal dysfunction: after myotomy, resolved (1 of 2)

After myotomy. The surgically divided muscle can no longer narrow the upper esophageal passageway, as seen by the widened stream of dark barium at the level of the muscle (arrows).

Very High-pitched Voice Elicits the Same Pharynx Contraction as Swallowing

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Secretions (1 of 4)

This person has cricopharyngeus dysfunction--the "catcher" problem described in the teaching video "Swallowing Trouble 101." One small indication in the first glimpse of the throat area is the pooling of secretions (here, mucus) in an "organized" fashion in the swallowing crescent right behind the larynx.

Contracted pharynx (2 of 4)

As part of VESS part 1, assessment of the patient's swallowing "equipment," pharyngeal squeeze elicitation is always performed. Here the patient produces the highest pitch she can make on " EEEE!" Note the major contraction of the pharynx as it "hugs" the larynx and closes the pyriform sinuses.

Cracker residue (3 of 4)

After chewing and swallowing a cheese cracker, some residue remains in the vallecula and also in the swallowing crescent.

Pharyngeal walls (4 of 4)

As the patient swallows, the pharyngeal walls come to near-approximation from lateral to medial, just before the view is lost during the upheaval of the swallow.

Cricopharyngeal Dysfunction, with Incipient Zenker’s

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Cricopharyngeal dysfunction, with incipient Zenker’s (1 of 1)

This patient with cricopharyngeal dysfunction is just beginning to form a Zenker’s pouch. Note that the cricopharyngeus muscle (light grey “thumb” at asterisk) is beginning to turn upwards and become more slender. The volume of barium below the dotted line is inside the incipient Zenker’s pouch. Over months or years, this pouch would stretch and develop into a true Zenker’s pouch.

Reflux Into Hypopharynx, Characteristic of Cricopharyngeal Dysfunction

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Reflux into hypopharynx (1 of 3)

The patient has swallowing problems typical of cricopharyngeal dysfunction. This swallow study reinforces that impression as well as the likely presence of a Zenker's diverticulum. In this photo, blue-stained water has just been swallowed, and the vocal cords are beginning to open. At this point, the hypopharynx contains no residue.

Water flows into the swallowing crescent (2 of 3)

One second later, the blue-stained water begins to emerge from just above the cricopharyngeus muscle into the "swallowing crescent".

Larynx opens up (3 of 3)

Another two seconds later, the larynx has fully opened post-swallow. The post-swallow hypopharyngeal re-emergence of the blue-stained water is apparent.

Cricopharyngeus Non-Relaxation and Zenker’s Sac Seen During VESS

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Immediately after swallow (1 of 4)

During VESS, after administration of several boluses of blue-stained applesauce. Trace applesauce on pharyngeal walls, immediately after a completed swallow. The postcricoid area is “clean” in this view, at *.

One second later (2 of 4

Approximately a half second later, applesauce appears at the *, having been ejected upwards from a presumed Zenker’s diverticulum.

Un-relaxed cricopharyngeus muscle (3 of 4)

During water administration, a glimpse of the un-relaxed cricopharyngeus muscle is seen (concentric dotted lines). Esophageal entrance at ‘E’ and Zenker’s pouch, still containing some previously-administered blue applesauce, at ‘Z'.

More water (4 of 4)

After several more boluses of blue-stained water, the applesauce has mostly washed away, and the same findings of photo 3 are seen more clearly.

Videos:

Cricopharyngeal Dysfunction: Difficulty Swallowing, Especially Solid Foods
Dr. Bastian explains this progressive swallowing problem and presents options for treatment. Cricopharyngeal dysfunction is caused by failure of relaxation of the upper esophageal sphincter—cricopharyngeus muscle—during eating. Typically it is solid foods that tend to lodge in the mid-neck area where this muscle is located.

Cricopharyngeal Dysfunction: Before and After Cricopharyngeal Myotomy
This video shows x-rays of barium passing through the throat, first with a narrowed area caused by a non-relaxing upper esophageal sphincter (cricopharyngeus muscle), and then after laser division of this muscle. Preoperatively, food and pills were getting stuck at the level of the mid-neck, and the person was eating mostly soft foods. After the myotomy (division of the muscle), the patient could again swallow meat, pizza, pills, etc. without difficulty.
https://youtu.be/_dBPKBg8jXM
Swallowing Trouble 101
This video gives an overview of how swallowing works, how it can sometimes go wrong (presbyphagia or cricopharyngeal dysfunction), and possible ways to treat those problems (swallowing therapy or cricopharyngeal myotomy).
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