Inability to Burp or Belch

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 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
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.

Check out our list of resources containing peer-reviewed articles, patient stories and more!

 


Photos of the cricopharyngeus muscle:

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Location of the cricopharyngeus muscle

Cricopharyngeus Muscle (1 of 3)

The highlighted oval represents the location of the cricopharyngeus muscle.
Retrograde Cricopharyngeus Dysfunction (R-CPD)

Cricopharyngeus Muscle (2 of 3)

The cricopharyngeus muscles in the open position.
Contracted Cricopharyngeus Muscle

Contracted Cricopharyngeus Muscle (3 of 3)

The cricopharyngeus muscle in the contracted position.

Esophageal Findings: Series of 3 photos

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A view of the mid-esophagus

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.
A bony spur in the spine

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.
dilation of the upper 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.

Abdominal Distention of R-CPD: Series of 3 photos

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x-ray of Gastric Air Bubble

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.

Dramatic Lateral Dilation of the Upper Esophagus: Series of 3 photos

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lateral dilation of the throat at C6 of the spine

(1 of 3)

This photo is at the level of (estimated) C6 of the spine (at S). This person has known cervical arthritis, accounting for the prominence. Opposite the spine is the trachea (T). Note the remarkable lateral dilation (arrows) in this picture obtained with with no insufflated air using a 3.6mm ENF-VQ scope. It is the patient’s own air keeping the esophagus open for viewing.
air from below further dilates the upper esophagus

(2 of 3)

At a moment when air from below further dilates the upper esophagus, the tracheal outline is particularly well-seen (T) opposite the spine (S). The “width” of the trachea indicated further emphasizes the degree of lateral dilation, which is necessary because spine and trachea resist anteroposterior dilation.
aortic shelf at the mid-esophagus

(3 of 3)

Just for interest, at mid-esophagus, the familiar aortic “shelf” is seen. Again, this esophagus is being viewed with a 3.6 mm scope with only the patient own (un-burped) air allowing this view.

What the Esophagus Can Look Like “Below A Burp”: Series of 3 photos

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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.

Where have no-burpers traveled from?

 

Map of RCPD patients across USA

World Map of RCPD Patients

Swelling Checks to Detect Vibratory (Overuse) Injury to the Surface Tissue (Mucosa) of the Vocal Cords

Definition: Vocal tasks (swelling checks) that detect acute or chronic vocal fold mucosal injury reliably; Secondarily, they can also detect gaps between otherwise normal folds.
Purpose /rationale: To provide persons with a way to detect mucosal trouble for themselves. We are in effect “taking all of the clothes off the mucosa.”
Who they are for: Anyone who uses the voice extensively or vigorously—particularly vocal overdoers.*
What they are not for: Voice training or performance.
When they should be done: When first learning the tasks, they should be done often until the concept of one’s mucosal ceiling is understood (see below). Once both proficiency and ceiling are established, the tests require 20 seconds or less both morning and evening.

TEST I: “HAPPY BIRTHDAY”

  1. In your upper voice range, sing the first phrase of “Happy Birthday” as softly as you can, using a “boy soprano pianissimo.” Resist the temptation to “make it work” by getting louder!
  2. Repeat the phrase at progressively higher pitches.
  3. Verify carefully the pitch at which you falter (onset delays or air escape) or can’t go higher without getting louder. THIS IS YOUR MUCOSAL CEILING PITCH, FOR THIS TASK.
  4. If your mucosa is normal, the “soft voice” and “loud voice” ceilings should be about the same.
  5. If your mucosa is abnormal, the “loud” ceiling should be higher than the “soft.”

TEST II: STACCATO

  1. Sing again “boy soprano pianissimo” using the descending staccato figure so so so so so fa mi re do
    (5-5-5-5-5-4-3-2-1; e.g. G-G-G-G-G-F-E-D-C) Attack each note precisely in the middle of the continuum
    between an aspirated ho and a coupe de glotte. In other words, lightly, precisely, and with a little bounce.
  2. As for “Happy Birthday,” repeat at progressively higher pitches.
  3. Again carefully verify the pitch at which you experience onset delays or air escape or can’t go higher without getting louder. THIS IS YOUR MUCOSAL CEILING PITCH, FOR THIS TASK.

COMMON QUESTIONS

My mucosal ceiling is higher when I do the staccato exercise than it is when I do “Happy Birthday.” What does that mean?

Though needing verification via careful laryngeal examination, this phenomenon suggests that a small gap between the folds, rather than swelling, is the problem.

My mucosal ceiling is higher when I do the “Happy Birthday” exercise than it is when I do staccato. What does that mean?

Again needing verification, this phenomenon suggests a mucosal disturbance rather than a gap as the explanation.

I can figure out my mucosal ceiling easily enough, but how do I know if it is normal?

This can be answered best at the outset by individuals who can compare your performance with that of hundreds of others to whom they have applied these tests (e.g. laryngologist, speech pathologist, voice teacher). It is also helpful at the beginning to correlate your mucosal ceiling with high quality visualization of the vocal folds.

What if my ceiling isn’t normal as compared to others?

The swelling tests are nevertheless just as valuable! Here’s how: Suppose an individual’s initial mucosal ceiling is abnormal because of small vocal nodules, but the person is happy with the voice’s capabilities. Here, the swelling tests can be monitored to help the individual prevent additional mucosal injury, by not allowing the ceiling to descend any further. A different person whose initial ceiling is abnormal might be unhappy with
perceived limitations due to mucosal injury. Now, ongoing use of the swelling tests can confirm the benefits of medical, behavioral (voice therapy) or, eventually, surgical treatments, because the ceiling will rise with successful treatment. Furthermore, these tests can help to avoid recurrent injury.

What if I notice that my ceiling is abnormal (lower) as compared to my usual?

First, consider recent voice use for the possibility that it was “too much.” If so, and/or if the ceiling
remains lowered on subsequent trials of the tests later in the day, “back off” by reducing voice use
until the ceiling returns to your usual pitch, whether “normal” as compared to other persons or not.
Women: Some may find that the ceiling lowers routinely during pre-menstrual days, but returns to normal in a few days.

Do I need to cancel everything until the ceiling recovers?

This depends on the severity of the lowering of the ceiling. Generally, however, careful strategy concerning amount and manner of voice use during this time will allow the mucosa to recover while you continue to work or perform.

Are there common pitfalls in use of the swelling tests?

First and foremost, is the tendency to adjust how the voice is produced when the voice begins to falter. A singer will, for example, unconsciously get a bit louder or use a slight glottal attack to “make it work,” thereby reducing the sensitivity of the tasks. Another might be to perform them without a pitch reference at hand, so that the value of comparing with one’s known “ceiling” pitch is lost. A third might be to become a bit too obsessive and easily “spooked” with any ceiling change. And finally, comes the tendency to “lose the habit!”

* Vocal overdoer: Defined as an individual with both of the following:
  1. A high propensity to use the voice. Generally, “sixes and sevens” on a 7-point (maximum) intrinsic talkativeness scale.
  2. A high extrinsic opportunity or invitation to use voice, based on family, social, vocational, and avocational considerations.

Foreign Content in the Throat

Photos:


Granulomatosis with polyangiitis (GPA)

A newer term for the auto-immune disorder previously called Wegener’s Granulomatosis.

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:


Photos:



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 occurs when it spontaneously ruptures, but yet not empty all of its contents (keratin). The outline of the partially-emptied cyst may still be very evident, but it usually assumes an oval shape with the long axis oriented anteriorly and posteriorly. If the cyst empties nearly completely, the white oval is no longer seen, but the vocal cord may have a mottled appearance. If the cyst empties completely, a sulcus lined by epithelium remains.


Photos of open epidermoid cyst:






HPV 33 & 45

Photos:


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.)


Photos:











Videos:

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