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Anatomy and physiology of the upper esophageal sphincter. Am J Med 1997 Nov 24;103(5A):50S-55S



Pubmed ID




Scopus ID

2-s2.0-0031435178   67 Citations


The upper esophageal sphincter (UES) is composed of the cricopharyngeus (CP), thyropharyngeus (TP; inferior pharyngeal constrictor [IPC] in humans), and cranial cervical esophagus. All 3 muscles may at times function to maintain tone in the UES, but only the CP contracts and relaxes in all physiologic states consistent with the UES. The CP is a striated muscle composed of variable-sized small (25-35 microm) muscle fibers that are primarily type I (slow twitch), highly oxidative, and contain abundant (40%) endomysial elastic connective tissue. The fibers may attach to the connective tissue framework, forming a muscular net. In humans and rats, but not other animals, the CP has no median raphe. The optimum length of the CP for development of active tension is about 1.7 times resting length; therefore, in some respects the CP acts more like cardiac than striated muscle. A passive tone in the CP is present and increases through all degrees of stretch. The high compliance of the CP allows it to be opened by distraction of other muscles (e.g., geniohyoideus) or increased intraluminal pressure. The CP is innervated by branches of the vagus nerves: pharyngoesophageal (PE), superior laryngeal (SLN), and recurrent laryngeal (RLN); glossopharyngeal (GPN); and cervical sympathetics. Only the PE and SLN provide motor fibers to the CP. The GLN may be sensory; the sympathetics may innervate the mucosa, blood vessels, and glands; but no functional innervation by the RLN has been identified. Parasympathetic ganglia and various peptides (galanin, cGRP, VIP, neuropeptide Y, substance P, tyrosine hydroxylase) have been found in the CP, but their role in control of the CP is unknown. The motoneurons of the CP are found in the nucleus ambiguus, and the innervation is ipsilateral for animal species in which the CP has a median raphe. These motoneurons are topographically organized with other pharyngeal and laryngeal muscles and the striated muscle esophagus. Pharyngeal motoneurons often have a respiratory rhythm, but not a spontaneous background discharge. Therefore, the CP motoneurons may not generate CP tone. Various reflexes control the tone of the CP. Distension of the esophagus causes contraction of the CP and UES, which is mediated by a vago-vagal reflex. Pressure on the pharyngeal mucosa contracts the CP and UES and is mediated by a glossopharyngo-vagal reflex. Inflation of the lungs causes contraction of the CP and UES, which is mediated by a vago-vagal reflex. The pharyngo-UES and pulmonary-UES reflexes may generate the respiratory rhythm often observed on UES pressure or electromyographic activity. The UES or CP also contracts with arousal or with changes in posture. All of these reflexes and responses and the passive elastic properties of the CP may contribute to the generation of tone in the CP and UES.

Author List

Lang IM, Shaker R


Ivan M. Lang DVM, PhD Professor in the Medicine department at Medical College of Wisconsin
Reza Shaker MD Assoc Provost, Sr Assoc Dean, Ctr Dir, Chief, Prof in the Medicine department at Medical College of Wisconsin

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jenkins-FCD Prod-466 5b81815b8b3d1f46bfec16512ed5f574613f59c5