Esophageal Atresia

"We live because we breathe, drink and eat. Something very crucial to lead our life." Esophagus also known as the food pipe is the organ that connects our mouth (pharynx) with the stomach. Once food is swallowed from pharynx (mouth), the food passes into esophagus. Esophageal contractions helps to carry masticated food to stomach. Patient is often unable to pass food from pharynx to stomach when patient is suffering with esophageal defects. Narrowing, stricture or complete blockade of esophagus interferes or obstructs the passage of food towards stomach. Esophageal Atresia is seen in newborn and adult when esophageal lumen is completed blocked. The congenital Esophageal Atresia is present during birth and medical condition is considered as a birth defect. The completely blocked or closed esophagus in newborn infants causes obstruction to swallow milk or soft food. Esophageal atresia or narrowing is caused by constriction or closure of the esophageal lumen at some point along its length resuting in a breakdown of the connection between the mouth and the stomach.

Esophageal Atresia

Well! The baby with the birth defect such as Esophageal Atresia may also suffer with shortness of breath or dyspnea. Following description of esophageal atresia and associated disease causing fistula, which is a connection between esophagus and trachea explains more of this condition. The article explains anatomical defects caused by Esophageal Atresia and trachio-esophageal fistula. The section of the articles also describes the latest treatment called "The Foker Technique" for treating Esophageal Atresia.

What Is Esophageal Atresia?

So, as mentioned above, Esophageal Atresia(EA) is actually a birth defect where the baby is unable to pass swallowed food to stomach. In such a condition the food pipe or the esophagus does not connect the mouth with the stomach. This is in fact a very rare congenital birth defect and only an approximate of 1 in 4000 babies suffer from such a condition. In some cases esophageal atresia is also associated with Tracheo Esophageal Fistula (TEF). Newborn baby may be born with EA and TEF and both are congenital defects. Tracheo Esophageal Fistula (TEF) is a tubular channel or passage betweeen esophagus and trachea. Tracheo Esophageal fistula is a medical condition cause by esophagus or the food pipe wrongly connected to the windpipe or the trachea. The continuous passage of small amount of food or gastric secretions from esophagus in to trachea causes tracheal and broncheal inflammation and peumonia. The condition is also known as aspiration pneumonia, which results in difficulties of breathing. There are also some rare cases where the baby may suffer from additional birth defect along with the Esophageal Atresia (EA) or the Tracheo Esophageal Fistula (TEF). The multiple organ defect is called the Vactral. Vactral is medical condition associated with birth defects in heart, kidney, anus, and limbs. Let us take the topic into more of its depth in the following paragraphs.

Classification and Types of Esophageal Atresia(EA) or Tracheoesohageal Fistula(TEF)

Birth defects such as EA/TEF are not detected during pregnancy and before baby's birth. Internal birth defect like EA and TEF cannot be diagnosed with radiological or ultrasound study of uterus and fetus. The infant during intra uterus life recieves oxygen and nutrients from blood. The oxygen and nutrients from mother are exchanged with fetal blood in placenta. The oxygen and nutrients are transferred from mother to fetus blood at blood capilaries of placenta. During growth in uterus, fetus does not eat or breath thus nothing passes through esophagus to stomach nor air passes through the trachea. During the time of early fetal development the two tubular structures such as esphagus and trachea originates side by side from common stem cells. Eventually esopahgus and breathing passage are separated and do not maintain any connection below pharynx. However rarely in few cases the connection between esophagus and trachea remains as a fistula or tiny tubular connection. The association of esophageal atresia and trachio-esophaeal fistula is presented as five major malfunction configurations. These five types or configurations are as follows.

  • Type A: This type of configuration is seen in about 7.7% of the cases. Here in this case both the segments of the esophagus end in a blind pouch and neither of the segments is attached with the trachea. Esophageal atresia is not associated with Tracheo-esophageal fistula.
  • Type B: Occuring in about 0.8% of the cases. Type B configuration occurs when the Esophageal atresia occurs with a conjugation of Tracheoesophageal fistula, where the upper segment of the esophagus forms a fistula with the trachea and the upper end of lower segment ends up in a blind pouch.1
  • Type C: This is the most common form of configuration in EA where the upper segment of the esophagus is ended up in a blind pouch while the lower segment forms a fistula to the trachea. Around 86.5% of the cases hold Type C configuration in congenital deects of esophageal atresia and Tracheoesophageal fistula.
  • Type D: The rarest form of Esophageal atresia or the Tracheoesophageal fistula where both the segments of the esophagus are attached to the Trachea by means of a fistula. It occurs in only 0.7% of the cases.
  • Type E: The condition is presented with tracheal esophageal fistula otherwise normal esophagus connecting pharynx (mouth with stomach 4.2% of the cases presented with this type of anomaly. This is also called as Type H form.

Symptoms of Esophageal Atresia/Tracheoesophageal Fistula:

Major symptoms of this birth defect are summarized as follows-

Non-Specific Symptoms of EA/TEF-

  • Restricted growth
  • Malnourishment
  • Lethargic child
  • Dry skin.

a. Symptoms of Atresia Resulting In Upper Espophageal Blind Pouch-

Following symptoms are observed when upper half of esophagus ends up in blind pouch.

  • Frothy White Mucous Oral Secretions- The infant though is able to swallow at first normally, however there appears a kind of tiny, frothy and white color mucus bubbles in the mouth and sometimes also in the nose.
  • Regurgitation of Content From Pouch- This happens due to the reflux and regurgitation of the ingested content, which is unable to pass beyond the esophageal pouch. The ingested milk or liquid is often mixed with mucous secretions.

b. Symptoms of Atresia Associated With Tracheal Fistula Connected With Upper Espophageal Blind Pouch-

  • Frothy Secretions- Fistula is a tubular connection between trachea and esophagus. The air from trachea passes through fistula into upper end of the esophagus and pouch. The frothy mucosal secretion is observed in mouth and nose. The secretion becomes frothy because the trapped milk and liquid in pouch is mixed with air transmitted from trachea.
  • Rattling Breathing- There may be a kind of rattling breathing sound heard in the baby's chest, especially while drinking. Rattling sound occurs because of air transmission through fistula while fistula is filled with esophageal secretions. Rattling sound is also caused by inflammation and edema of bronchioli.
  • Coughing and Choking- The noisy breathing is also accompanied by coughing and choking. The liquid passes from esophagus to trachea through fistula. The presence of liquid in trachea causes cough and choking.
  • Short of Breath and Dyspnoea- Difficulty breathing starts appearing when liquid passes from esophagus to trachea through tracheo-esophageal fistula. Short of breath is caused when baby is struggling to breath. The inflammation of bronchioli and alveoli (lungs) caused by esophageal secretions in lungs results in swelling of smaller air passages (bronchioli). The bronchiolar mucosal edema or swelling causes difficulties in air transmission to alveoli or lung, which results in dyspnea or difficult breathing. Child tries to take deep breath each time child inhales air.
  • Cyanosis- Cyanosis is caused by low blood oxygen. The secretion from esophagus enter into trachea through fistula and secretions spreads over the inner surface of lung or alveoli. The esophageal and gastric secretions causing bronchial and alveolar spasm, swelling and inflammation interferes with oxygen exchanged.

c. Symptoms of Atresia Associated With Upper Espophageal Blind Pouch and Fistula of Lower Esophageal Pouch –

  • Frothy White Mucous Oral Secretions- The frothy secretions are observed in mouth and nasal passsages.
  • Regurgitation of Content From Pouch- Frequent regurgitation of milk or liquid is observed.
  • Frequent Coughing- Symptom is caused by gastric secretion that passes through the fistula into trachea.
  • Rattling Breathing- The gastic secretion causes bronchiolar inflammation and swelling resisting passage of air to alveoli.
  • Short of Breath and Dyspnea- The low oxygen saturation in blood causes strenuous breathing.

Diagnosis of Esphageal Atresia(EA):

Examination of Esophageal Passage-

  • The initial stage of diagnosing esophageal atresia begins by insertion of a long catheter through the nose into the esophagus.
  • The distance from mouth to stomach is estimated by height and surface anatomy. The surgeon is unable to advance catheter beyond pouch, which is much shorter distance than to stomach.
  • Usually the catherter would stop at 4 or 5 inches from the nostril in case there is EA present.

Radiological Study-

  • Barium Study- Barium enhanced X-ray may reveal the dilated esophageal pouch. The pouch in few cases is sustantially larger in size because of collection of amniotic fluid in the pouch during intrauterine fetal growth.
  • Abdominal X-ray- This may show air in stomach when lower esophageal pouch is connected to trachea through fistula.
  • Chest X-Ray- This may show signs of pneumonia and bronchitis.

Electrocardiogram (EKG)-

  • EKG may show increased heart rate because of low oxygen in blood.

Blood Examination-

  • Blood oxygen and peripheral oxygen saturation is low. In few cases hemoglobin concentration is relatively high.

Ultrasound Study-

  • Ultrasound of chest may show fistula as well as esophageal pouch.

Endoscopic Study-

  • Tiny camera known as endoscope is passed through mouth in to esophagus and trachea. 2 The pediatric gastoenterologist can see the pharynx, esophagus and pouch. If upper esophagus is connected to fistula then fistula is also seen through the endoscope. The fistula attached to lower pouch cannot be seen through endoscope

Treatment of Esophageal Atresia and Tracheoesophageal Fistula

Esophageal atresia when associated with Tracheoesophageal fistula is usually a life threatening condition seen with 1 in 4000 babies. The combined birth defect of EA and TEF comprises difficulties in swallowing, digestions, breathing and thus may be highly dangerous, requiring an immediate medical care and attention. The most important treatment for EA/TEF usually involves surgery. The surgery usually can be done within 24 hours of the baby's birth. However in case the baby has some other defects or infection along with esophageal atresia and may have some complication, then the surgery may be delayed for 3 months of age.

The disease is managed with medical treatment until baby is healthy enough to undergo surgery.

Medical Management of Esophageal Atresia-

  • Frequent or Continuous Removal of Retained Secretions From Pouch- The mucus and saliva are continuously removed via a catheter. Tiny catheter is passed from the nose and tip is left in the pouch of proximal end of esophagus.
  • Intravenous Feeding- Baby is fed thtough intravenous catheter. Nutrition and hydration are provided till surgery is performed.
  • Antibiotic Treatment- Infection is treated with antibiotics.
  • Gastric Feeding- Baby is often fed through a tube, which is passed from outside directly into stomach.

Surgical Treatments For Esophageal Atresia and Tracheoesophageal Fistula:

The surgery is done under general anesthesia.

Surgery For Esophageal Atresia With No Fistula-

  • A tube is placed through the mouth into the esophagial pouch. All the secretions are aspirated prior to skin incision. In case the gap between the two ends of the esophagus is short then the surgeon may simply join the two ends, procedure is known as anastomosis.
  • In case there is a long gap between the two sections of the esophagus and it is difficult to reattach the two segments then the esophageal ends are first allowed to grow and then surgery is done.

Surgery For Esophageal Atresia Associated With Tracheo-Esophageal Fistula-

  • The fistula is surgically exposed and two end of fistula, which are attached to trachea and esophagus are identiied. Both ends are ligated with sutures. The closed sutures are applied to prevent any leak following surgery.
  • Baby is often fed through gastric tube after surgery. Tube is directly inserted into stomach from abdominal wall. The tube allows feeding of nutrition and fluid directly into stomach.

Long-Gap Esophageal Atresia and the Foker's Technique Treatment:

Foker's surgical treatment is used to treat long gap Esophageal Atresia. The technique was developed by Dr. Foker and known as Foker's Technique.3 Foker's technique is the most advanced and effective form of treatment for long gap esophageal atresia. Published data suggest success rate is near 100%. Foker's surgical techniques are as follows-

  • Long gap esophageal atresia is one of the rarest form of EA birth defect where there is a very long or large gap between the two sections of the esophagus. It may be difficult to approximate the two segments via the usual surgical procedures used in surgical treatment of the EA.
  • Foker's technique is an advanced treatment procedure developed by Dr. John Foker, MD, a Pediatric surgeon at University of Minnesota.
  • Foker modified the treatment to promote the rapid development of the esophageal pouch and ends. The procedure helps to make the upper and lower segment of the esophagus grow faster and come closer.
  • The prime aim here is to get the two sections of the esophagus come closer and then the two proximal ends are attached via anastomosis.
  • During the growth period the esophagial pouch is suctioned continuously.
  • The procedure involves an insertion and anchoring of the special stitches over both end of esophagus.
  • The sutures or stitches are called traction sutures. The stitches are pulled with gentle pressure so as to promote both ends of the esophagus to come close to each other.
  • The stitches come out of the abdominal skin and placed outside the body. The traction over the suture material allows pulling of the esophageal end towards each other.

Surgical Outcome- Surgical mortality is high if EA and TEF is associated with heart abnormality like ventricular septal defects.4

Complications or Risk Factors Involved With Foker's Technique:

There are some of the complications involved with the technique. Let us take a look on them.

Bleeding- Surgery may cause bleeding and excessive loss of blood resulting in anemia. The treatment may require blood transfusion as well as re-exploration surgery to stop bleeding.

Infection- Surgery maybe followed by an infection. The esophaeal pouch and bronchitis may be source of infection.

Leakage- The open end of trachea and esophagus after removal of fistula may leak in mediastimum (chest cavity). The leak may cause infection and severe pain.

Additional Fistula Formation- Surgery may result in esophageal tissue trauma and formation of more esophageal fistula. The surgical incision and surgical field around the fistula is extremely small because of the size of the infant. The surgical field is often compromized by use of surgical instrument and pair of operating hands. Inadequate view of surgical field may result in soft tissue damage. The damaged soft tissue once get inflammed may result in fistula formations.


1. Esophageal atresia with proximal tracheoesophageal fistula: a missed diagnosis.

Parolini F1, Morandi A, Macchini F, Canazza L, Torricelli M, Zanini A, Leva E.

J Pediatr Surg. 2013 Jun;48(6):E13-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jpedsurg.2013.04.018.

2. Laryngotracheobronchoscopy prior to esophageal atresia and tracheoesophageal fistula repair--its use and importance.

Sharma N1, Srinivas M2.

J Pediatr Surg. 2014 Feb;49(2):367-9.

3. Foker's technique in oesophageal atresia with double fistula: a case report.

Gaglione G1, Tramontano A, Capobianco A, Mazzei S.

Eur J Pediatr Surg. 2003 Feb;13(1):50-3.

4. A nationwide analysis of clinical outcomes among newborns with esophageal atresia and tracheoesophageal fistulas in the United States.

Wang B1, Tashiro J1, Allan BJ1, Sola JE1, Parikh PP1, Hogan AR1, Neville HL1, Perez EA2.

J Surg Res. 2014 Aug;190(2):604-12.

Written, Edited or Reviewed By:


Last Modified On: September 27, 2016

Pain Assist Inc.

Pramod Kerkar
  Note: Information provided is not a substitute for physician, hospital or any form of medical care. Examination and Investigation is necessary for correct diagnosis.

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