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Learning About Zenker's Diverticulum

What is Zenker's diverticulum?

A Zenker's diverticulum is a pouch or bulge that forms in the esophagus. The esophagus is the tube that connects the throat to the stomach. The muscles in the tube squeeze to move food and liquid from the back of your mouth to your stomach. The pouch forms because of a weak spot in the esophagus where it joins the lower part of the throat.

Food can get caught in the pouch. This can make it hard to swallow and can cause other problems. The trapped food may get sucked into the lungs and lead to pneumonia, an infection in the lungs.

What are the symptoms?

When you have Zenker's diverticulum, you may:

  • Get food or pills caught in your throat.
  • Have trouble swallowing.
  • Cough.
  • Feel like there's a lump in your throat.
  • Throw up or cough up undigested food that was trapped in the pouch.
  • Have bad breath.

There may be no symptoms if the pouch is small.

How is it diagnosed?

Zenker's diverticulum is usually diagnosed with a barium swallow. This is a type of X-ray. Before the X-ray, you'll drink a chalky liquid called barium. Barium coats the inside of your esophagus so it shows up better on an X-ray.

Sometimes Zenker's diverticulum is found during a test for a different problem in the throat or stomach.

How is it treated?

A small diverticulum with no symptoms or mild symptoms may not need treatment.

A larger diverticulum is usually treated with surgery. Endoscopic treatment instead of surgery may be an option. The endoscope is a thin tube with a light and camera on the end of it. It lets the surgeon see into the throat.

After surgery you may need to stay in the hospital overnight or longer. If endoscopic treatment is used, you may be able to go home sooner. After you heal, you may need a follow-up barium swallow test.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

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