What to Know About Esophageal Stricture

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on February 20, 2024
3 min read

An esophageal stricture refers to the abnormal narrowing or tightening of the esophagus. The esophagus is a tube that passes food down from your throat to the stomach. The esophageal strictures make it hard for you to swallow the food. You will feel like something is frozen or stuck in your throat. This condition also makes it hard for you to drink liquid easily.

Digestive disorders, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), are the most common causes of esophageal stricture. Strictures can also result from other medical conditions.

Esophageal strictures are usually treated with a dilation procedure that widens the esophagus and relieves symptoms.

Esophageal strictures happen rarely and affect people of all ages, especially those older than age 40.

This condition can be:

  • Cancerous: More severe than any other condition. If not treated on time, these strictures worsen quickly.
  • Noncancerous: These strictures grow slowly.

The esophageal strictures can be either simple or complex.

  • Simple strictures: These are small obstructions in the esophagus that leave a wider opening than complex strictures. Simple strictures are straight, symmetrical, and have smooth surfaces and borders.
  • Complex strictures: These are longer obstructions in the esophagus that leave a narrower opening. Complex strictures are asymmetrical and have rough or uneven surfaces and borders.

The most common esophageal stricture causes are:

  • Injury in the esophagus
  • Tumor or cancer growth
  • Foreign objects

Some health conditions or treatments that leave the esophagus inflamed or scarred can also lead to strictures. These include:

  • Eosinophilic esophagitis: A chronic immune system problem in which eosinophils (white blood cells) develop in the esophagus. This causes inflammation in the esophagus that may lead to strictures.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): In this digestive disorder, the stomach acid flows abnormally in a backward manner (acid reflux). When the acid reaches the esophagus, it damages its lining and causes peptic strictures.
  • Radiation therapy: Used in treatment for many cancers in the head, neck, or chest. This therapy can cause strictures in the esophagus which may appear up to a year and a half later.
  • Surgery: Any type of esophageal surgery can cause inflammation and scarring. It could lead to strictures.

Some other causes of esophageal strictures are: 

  • Ulcers
  • Some medications, including antibiotics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Certain infections 
  • Swallowing chemicals 

Common esophageal stricture symptoms are:

  • Inflammation, a burning sensation, or feeling like something is stuck in your throat
  • Frequent heartburn
  • Difficulty swallowing food
  • Difficulty drinking water
  • Weight loss
  • Frequent choking episodes 

If you feel any of the symptoms, immediately seek medical attention. Your doctor will diagnose your condition before the strictures lead to dehydration or malnutrition.

Esophageal dilation is the most recommended esophageal stricture treatment. The doctor uses a balloon or dilator — a long cylinder made of rubber or plastic — to widen the esophagus.

The doctor gives you sedatives before the procedure to relax you and may numb parts of your throat, so you don’t feel pain. 

During the procedure, the doctor puts an endoscope from your throat to the esophagus. Then, a balloon or a dilator is inserted to stretch the esophagus.

People with GERD are given medications to decrease the production of their stomach acid.

In cases of complex strictures, doctors also use metal esophageal stents to stretch and open the strictures. 

Your doctor will suggest that you avoid eating, drinking, or driving for some time. They may also give you some medications to control your stomach acid at home. You will also receive a schedule of follow-up visits from your doctor.