Achalasia affects only a small number of people around the world, estimated at 1.6 per 100,000, and children make up fewer than 5 percent of that total. In most cases, the causes are unknown, but it is attributed to a combination of heredity and autoimmune or nerve cell disorders. For adults, treatment might include oral medication to prevent narrowing, balloon dilation, or botulinum toxin injections to relax the muscle at the end of the esophagus. For a growing child, who faces not just months but a lifetime of injections and potential repeat procedures, these methods aren’t viable. Instead, surgical correction is the standard of care. In the past 10 years, the surgical option evolved from a traditional open procedure with weeks of recovery and pain to less-invasive approaches.
“The total number of children with achalasia is small,” says Timothy D. Kane, M.D., Division Chief of General and Thoracic Surgery at Children’s National Health System. “But Children’s National treats more of these cases than most other children’s hospitals around the world, and that gives us the ability to look at a larger population and see what works.”
Dr. Kane is senior author of a study recently published in the Journal of Pediatric Surgery that analyzed the outcomes from nearly a decade’s worth of these cases to gauge the effectiveness of two different minimally invasive surgical approaches for children with achalasia.
A look at the two surgical options
The most common surgical intervention is laparoscopic Heller myotomy, performed through small incisions in the belly. Additionally, Dr. Kane and the Children’s surgical team are one of only two teams in the country who perform a different procedure called peroral endoscopic myotomy (POEM) on children. The POEM procedure is completed entirely through the mouth using an endoscope, with no additional incision needed. The procedure is commonly used for adult achalasia cases, but is not widely available for children elsewhere as it requires specialized training and practice to perform.
“Heller myotomy works very well for most kids — that’s why it’s the standard of care,” Dr. Kane says. “Our study found that patients who underwent the POEM procedure experienced the same successful outcomes as Heller patients, and we already knew from adult data that POEM patients reported less pain following surgery — a win-win for children.”
The retrospective study included all children who had undergone surgical treatment for achalasia at Children’s from 2006 to 2015. Since achalasia cases are few and far between, with most children’s hospitals seeing maybe one to five cases over 10 years, collecting reliable data on outcomes is challenging. This study provides a large enough sample to allow doctors to use the findings as a guide to find the interventions that are the best fit for each patient.
“Now we’re very comfortable presenting families with two really good options and letting them choose the one that works best for them,” he concludes.
Imagine the feeling of food stuck in your throat. For children with esophageal achalasia, that feeling is a constant truth: The muscles in the esophagus fail to function properly and the lower valve, or sphincter, of the esophagus controlling the flow of food into the stomach doesn’t relax enough to allow in food — causing a backup, heartburn, chest pain, and many other painful symptoms. For children, surgery is the best hope for permanent relief.