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” and more specifically, directly behind the cricoid cartilage.
If you care to see this on a model, look at the photos 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. The formal name for this disorder is retrograde cricopharyngeus dysfunction (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. 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 chest pressure or abdominal bloating, and even abdominal distention. Flatulence is also severe in most persons with R-CPD. Other less universal symptoms are nausea after eating, painful hiccups, hypersalivation, or a feeling of difficulty breathing with exertion when “full of air.” Many persons with R-CPD have undergone extensive testing and treatment trials without benefit. R-CPD reduces quality of life, and is often socially disruptive and anxiety-provoking. Common (incorrect) diagnoses are “acid reflux” and “irritable bowel syndrome,” and therefore treatments for these conditions do not relieve symptoms significantly.
Approaches for treating the inability to burp:
For people who match the syndrome of 1) inability to belch; 2) gurgling noises; 3) chest/abdominal pressure and bloating; and 4) flatulence; Here is the most efficient way forward: First, a consultation to determine whether or not the criteria for diagnosing R-CPD are met. Next, a simple office-based videoendoscopic swallow study which incorporates a neurological examination of tongue, pharynx (throat) and larynx muscles and often includes a mini-esophagoscopy. 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 straightforward office consultation and swallowing evaluation establishes the diagnosis of retrograde cricopharyngeus dysfunction (non-relaxation).
The second step is to place 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. Furthermore, based upon an experience with more than 190 patients as of August 2019, a single injection appears to “train” the patient how to burp. Approximately 80% of patients have maintained the ability to burp long after the effect of the Botox has dissipated. That is, long past 6 months from the time of injection.
Patients treated for R-CPD as just described should experience dramatic relief of their symptoms. And to repeat, our experience in treating more than 190 patients (and counting) suggests 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 might even elect to undergo endoscopic laser cricopharyngeus myotomy. To learn more about this condition, see Dr. Bastian’s description of his experience with the first 51 of his much larger caseload at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2473974X19834553.
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.
Esophageal Findings (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
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.
Where have patients traveled from?