The esophagus seems to have only one important function in the body - to carry food, liquids, and saliva from the mouth to the stomach. The stomach then acts as a container to start digestion and pump food and liquids into the intestines in a controlled process. Food can then be properly digested over time, and nutrients can be absorbed by the intestines.
The esophagus transports food to the stomach by coordinated contractions of its muscular lining. This process is automatic and people are usually not aware of it. Many people have felt their esophagus when they swallow something too large, try to eat too quickly, or drink very hot or very cold liquids. They then feel the movement of the food or drink down the esophagus into the stomach, which may be an uncomfortable sensation.
The muscular layers of the esophagus are normally pinched together at both the upper and lower ends by muscles called sphincters. When a person swallows, the sphincters relax automatically to allow food or drink to pass from the mouth into the stomach. The muscles then close rapidly to prevent the swallowed food or drink from leaking out of the stomach back into the esophagus or into the mouth. These sphincters make it possible to swallow while lying down or even upside-down. When people belch to release swallowed air or gas from carbonated beverages, the sphincters relax and small amounts of food or drink may come back up briefly; this condition is called reflux. The esophagus quickly squeezes the material back into the stomach. This amount of reflux and the reaction to it by the esophagus are considered normal.
While these functions of the esophagus are obviously an important part of everyday life, people who must have their esophagus removed, for example because of cancer, can live a relatively healthy life without it.
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This page was last updated: April 20, 2013