Imagine not being able to eat because you cannot swallow your food. Add to that intolerable pain and the inability to sleep at night. These are some of the symptoms of a rare esophageal disorder called Achalasia. About 1 in 100,000 develop Achalasia, so it is rare, but for the unfortunate that do, it has serious negative effects on their quality of life.
A relatively new procedure, called Peroral endoscopic myotomy (POEM), is giving many of these patients a pain-free existence for the first time in many, many years. For many patients, including Dave Usavage, who was interviewed for a recent online article on achalasia, the disease became a living nightmare and made day-to-day living very difficult to manage. Usavage had been dealing with debilitating achalasia for over 8 months.
“I couldn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t eat and you can only go so long like that …. I would eat something and I would have to vomit I mean within a half-hour.” — Dave Usavage, achalasia patient who’s undergone POEM
The symptoms of achalasia are so similar to other disorders and diseases that doctors ofter overlook achalasia and the diagnosis is delayed. Patients with achalasia find it difficult for the food and liquid they ingest to move into the stomach. Nerve damage in the esophagus, which connects the mouth to the stomach, is the culprit behind a diagnosis of achalasia. The squeezing action the esophagus uses to push food into the stomach weakens and the valve between esophagus and the stomach fails to relax, thus impeding food’s movement into the stomach.
POEM is a less invasive procedure that involves the use of an endoscope. The surgeon creates an incision in the lining of your esophagus through the endoscope and cuts the valve that is not allowing food to pass through to the stomach. This valve is called the esophageal sphincter, and opening up the muscle allows food to pass through much more easily.
The United States has about 3,000 new cases of achalasia a year. No one is really sure why the muscles in the esophagus stop being productive and what causes the gastroesophageal sphincter to become tight. It doesn’t target a specific subset of ethnicity or race. It is not genetically passed along.
Since there is no cure for achalasia, POEM is currently the best bet in helping patients recover their normal life again. It’s use is limited to a few facilities around the country, so research is warranted if this procedure is in your future.