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Oesophageal dilatation

Cancer in the food pipe (oesophagus) can partly or completely block it and make it difficult to swallow. The food pipe can also get narrower after treatment such as surgery or radiotherapy.

Stretching the food pipe opens it up again so that you can swallow food and drink more easily. This procedure is called oesophageal dilatation. This isn't a common treatment.

You have the treatment in hospital in the radiology department or x-ray department. It usually takes about 30 minutes.

Before treatment

You have a blood test 1 week before the procedure. Your doctor or specialist nurse explains what will happen. They ask you to sign a form saying that you agree to have the procedure. You can ask them any questions you have.

Tell your doctor or nurse about any medicines you take.

On the treatment day you should stop eating and drinking anything except water for 4 to 6 hours beforehand. And you should stop drinking water 2 hours before the procedure.

Having treatment

A nurse puts a small tube called a cannula into a vein in the back of your hand. They go with you to the endoscopy or x-ray department. Your nurse might give you a small amount of liquid to drink. The liquid is a dye that helps to show up the narrowing in the oesophagus more clearly.

The nurse or doctor usually injects medicine into the cannula. This is to make you sleepy. Rarely you might have a general anaesthetic.

You sit or lie on a hard couch or trolley. When you’re very sleepy your doctor gently puts a long flexible tube called a catheter into your food pipe. The catheter has an expandable area called a balloon. Looking down the tube or using an x-ray screen, your doctor can see the narrowed area. The catheter goes past it.

Your doctor expands the balloon to widen the food pipe. They repeat this a few times until the narrowing has gone.

Diagram showing how a balloon is used to stretch the oesophagus

Your doctor might then put a tube called a stent into the area to keep the food pipe open.

The doctor takes the catheter out when they have finished stretching the food pipe.

After treatment

You stay in the radiology or x-ray department until the sedation or anaesthetic wears off. You might wear an oxygen mask for a short time. A nurse then takes you back to your ward. You can usually go home that evening but you might need to stay in hospital overnight.

If you had a stent fitted you need to stay in hospital for a few days.

Eating and drinking

About 4 hours after the procedure, your nurse gives you a liquid dye to swallow. You have x-rays of your oesophagus to make sure the narrowing has gone. Then you can eat and drink again but you might need to start with a soft diet. Follow advice from your nurses, doctors or a dietitian.

Side effects

Soreness and pain

You might have a sore throat. Taking painkillers for a few days helps.

Tell your nurse or doctor if you still have pain.

Bleeding

You might have some slight bleeding in the food pipe. It might give you a metallic taste in your mouth. This usually gets better over a few days.

Your nurse will give you mouthwashes. Tell them if you cough up blood.

Infection

Tell your nurse or doctor if you feel ill or have a temperature. You have antibiotics either as tablets or injections into your bloodstream if you get an infection.

Heartburn or acid reflux

Tell your nurse or doctor if you have heartburn or acid reflux. They can give you anti acid medicine.

Sleeping upright in bed helps to prevent heartburn. You can use pillows or cushions to support yourself.

A hole in the food pipe

Damage to the food pipe can tear it or make a hole (perforation). This is very rare. 

In the first 3 days after having treatment, tell your doctor or nurse straight away if you

  • have difficulty breathing
  • get severe chest pain
  • vomit blood
  • can’t keep food or drinks down

If the food pipe narrows again

You can have dilatation again if the narrowing comes back. Or your doctor might suggest other treatments.

Last reviewed: 
31 Oct 2019
  • Guidelines for the management of oesophageal and gastric cancer. British Society of Gastroenterology (BSG), 2011.

  • Oesophago-gastric cancer: assessment and management in adults  [NG83]
    National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE)
    Published January 2018

  • An audit of the care received by people with Oesophago-Gastric Cancer in England and Wales 2018 Annual Report Version 2: March 2019
    The Royal College of Surgeons of England and Healthcare Quality Improvement Partnership

  • Oesophageal cancer: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up
    F. Lordick and others
    Ann Oncol. 2016 27 Suppl 6: v50-v57

  • Oesophageal cancer
    J Lagergren and others
    The Lancet Vol 390, November 25th 2017

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