Oesophageal dilatation

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

Stretching the oesophagus 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 them about any medicines you’re taking.

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

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 injects medicine to make you sleepy into the tube in your hand. Rarely, you might have a general anaesthetic which means you are asleep during the treatment. 

Having treatment

When you’re very sleepy or asleep your doctor puts a long flexible tube called a catheter into your oesophagus. 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 oesophagus. 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 oesophagus open.

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

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 can go home that evening you need someone to go with you and stay with you until the next day.

Eating and drinking

You can’t eat or drink for a little while. Your nurse tells you when you can start drinking. Then you can build up to eating soft foods or normal foods again. A dietitian can advise you on what to eat.

Oesophageal dilatation can cause swelling. This can make it difficult to swallow for the first few days.

Side effects

Soreness and pain

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

Tell your doctor or endoscopy department if your pain doesn’t get better.


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

Tell your nurse or doctor if you cough up blood.


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

You might have some heartburn or acid reflux. Your nurse or doctor can give you anti acid medicine to help.

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

A hole in the oesophagus

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

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.

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

  • UK guidelines on oesophageal dilation in clinical practice
    SS Sami and others
    Gut, 2018. Volume 67. Pages 1000-1023

  • National Oesophago-Gastric Cancer Audit
    The Royal College of Surgeons of England, 2022

  • Oesophageal cancer: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up
    R Obermannova and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2022. Volume 33. Pages 992-1004

  • Oesophageal cancer
    J Lagergren and others
    The Lancet (2017). Volume 390. Pages 2383-2396

Last reviewed: 
25 Sep 2023
Next review due: 
25 Sep 2026

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