Anxiety disorders affect as many as 40 million people in the US alone, which translates to roughly 18% of the population. The condition is enveloped in a cloud of confusion, with many patients shirking away from scheduling an appointment with a therapist and others fueling misconceptions about anxious persons. While anxiety is treatable, it comes with a wide range of symptoms that can affect individuals both physically and mentally. Fatigue, weight loss or weight gain, heart palpitations, headaches and hyperventilation, just to mention a few, are the most common physical symptoms of anxiety. But many patients often deal with a more obscure sign of high anxiety that is frequently wrongly interpreted as cancer or a tumor: cricopharyngeal spasm.
What is cricopharyngeal spasm? The condition occurs within the muscle of the pharynx and patients describe it as the sensation of having a lump or a foreign body stuck in their throat. It is, therefore, highly understandable why most patients will jump to the conclusion that they have throat cancer. The silver lining here is that cricopharyngeal spasm isn’t nearly as dangerous as cancer, but only uncomfortable. A self-limiting condition, cricopharyngeal spasm will fade away on its own. There are a few ways to relief the discomfort that is created, but since the condition is stress-induced, not all remedies can kick in fast enough to save the day.
The reasons why cricopharyngeal spasm raises so much anxiety is that its symptoms are not easy to distinguish from those of other conditions. Cricopharyngeal spasm causes the valve of the esophagus to stop working properly, which, in its turn, creates the feeling of discomfort and restriction. Cricopharyngeal spasm symptoms can come and go during the day and can last from several minutes to a few hours at a time. The lump in the cricoid cartilage might be accompanied by a sensation of constriction or choking as well as a feeling of swelling. These symptoms usually increase in the evening and during night time. Cricopharyngeal spasm signs are fueled by stress, extreme emotions and anxiety. Despite all these symptoms, patients don’t encounter problems in swallowing food. As a matter of fact, eating and drinking warm fluids can contribute to relieving pain and discomfort. Some patients noted that the discomfort can sometimes be present for extended periods of time, exceeding days and weeks.
Cricopharyngeal spasm can be caused by a few factors. The most common causes are stress and anxiety. Negative thoughts or emotions also play an important role and can easily trigger cricopharyngeal spasm. Although there is not enough evidence to support this statement, it is believed that cricopharyngeal spasm can be caused by some foods, as an allergic reaction, with nuts and seeds as the primary suspects.
Most of the time, patients don’t require a prescription or treatment for cricopharyngeal spasm. However, for patients who have to suffer from this conditions for days, weeks and even months on a row, it can be extremely difficult to cope with the symptoms and signs. Cricopharyngeal spasm can affect life quality, making the patient withdraw from social events and isolate himself from friends and family. Anxiety and stress, even if they are not the main triggers of this condition, will only deepen the discomfort and pain. Patients who experience cricopharyngeal spasm often can take the matter into their own hands and experiment with a few at home remedies. The majority of these suggestions are meant to relieve stress and anxiety, thus helping with the complete liberation from the feeling of a foreign body in the throat.
Dubbed the “depression herb”, Rhodiola has long been used as a powerful anti-depressant and anti-aging natural remedy in Russia. Rhodiola rosea grows on mountains and sea cliffs and is believed to boost physical performance as well as mental sharpness. Known as a strong ally against stress and anxiety, Rhodiola can have a positive impact both on the mind and on the body. Recent studies proved that this Siberian herb can, in fact, also lower blood pressure and slow down the heart rate. A natural remedy for depression, this plant will boost serotonin levels and help improve your mood. Taking all these benefits into account, it’s easy to see how Rhodiola can help with cricopharyngeal spasm. By tapping into the stress and anxiety levels, the plant is bound to make patients feel less tense and decrease the discomfort they experience in their throats.
2. Herbal teas
The most common signs of cricopharyngeal spasms are feelings of tight throat and restriction. These two can be reduced by drinking fluids. Anything from water, natural juices and warm teas have been reported to help with the discomfort and soothe the aching throat. However, herbal teas are the best because they combine the active ingredients of calming plants and the comfort of the warm water. If you need some inspiration, try steeping a big mug of chamomile, linden tree, lemon balm and ginseng. If you have a favorite tea of your choice, sip on that throughout the day, but try to avoid drinking anything that comprise high doses of caffeine right before going to bed. This might keep you awake and the cricopharyngeal muscle spasm will only intensify. When brewing herbal teas, add one teaspoon of dried leaves to one cup of steaming water. If you’re using fresh leaves or herbs, put three tablespoons in the mug and steep for 7 to 10 minutes, according to your preferences. Never drink tea that is too hot or too cold, since it could damage your esophagus.
3. B Vitamins
Vitamin B complex is a vital nutrient for our bodies since it helps with energy production and it boosts red blood cells performance. Besides these, B vitamins are also known for supporting general health, wellness and eliminating mood swings. By regulating brain chemistry and producing serotonin, this important vitamin complex has been reported to help with treating fatigue, anxiety and depression. Some patients noticed cricopharyngeal spasm relief once they started taking vitamin B supplements. However, don't expect the results to kick in overnight. Patients should bear in mind that just like with any other supplement, the body needs a period of time to assimilate the nutrients and process them before our bodies start reaping the benefits.
4. Reducing stress and anxiety
Since the most frequent causes of the condition are stress, anxiety and negative emotions, cricopharyngeal spasm treatment should target fixing or improving these disorders. Easier said than done, this is a long and demanding process that won’t show results over night. Depending on the individual and the problems he is confronted with, the path to decreasing stress and anxiety can involve different steps. The first and most important step is pinpointing what triggers the anxiety and identifying the most common stress factors. With most patients reluctant to see a therapist, the easiest way to identify the harmful agents is by keeping a journal. Patients can start jotting down situations that make them extremely nervous, panic attacks and anxiety episodes. The correlation between these and cricopharyngeal spasm should be easy to spot. But how about reducing anxiety? It’s worth noting that just as anxiety doesn’t develop in a single day, it’s highly unlikely to counterattack it in a short period of time. If asking for the help of a therapist is out of the question, patients could use self-help books, physical activities such as running or yoga, spending time with family, friends or pets and getting involved in helping out others by volunteering for NGOs.
5. Muscle relaxation
If cricopharyngeal spasms worsen or go on for weeks, a doctor will be able to prescribe you muscle relaxers that will diminish the sensation of a constricted throat. The common drugs used in these situations are Lorazepam and Diazepam. These two will also reduce the frequency and the intensity of the spasms. The disadvantage with these drugs is that they easily create addiction. You should carefully consult with your doctor before agreeing on a period of time for administering the drugs. It’s also worth keeping in mind that while pills like Lorazepam and Diazepam will alleviate the symptoms of cricopharyngeal spasm, it won’t cure anxiety or stress. If the medication soothes the signs, this indicates that the problem is not physical, but rather related to a mental disorder. Breathing therapy can also help patients deal with the discomfort and the sensation of having a lump in their throats. The technique is not complicated, however, patience is required and results are not to be expected all of a sudden.
An easy DIY at-home remedy, heat applications have been reported to assuage discomfort and help with swallowing difficulties. Patients can use electric or traditional heat pads to place on the aching throat. Muscles are bound to relax, helping with the irritating symptoms. Just like sipping on warm fluids, applying heated pads on the throat does not only help physically but also therapeutically. Heat pads work wonders because they increase blood flow by opening up blood vessels. Applying heat to any area reduces muscle spasm and helps ligaments to relax. Heat pads can easily be made at home using wet towels in a zip lock bag or rice in a sock. These tricks will give cricopharyngeal spasm patients a break from the aching symptoms and constant discomfort.