The Human Body

The Esophagus

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The presence of food in the pharynx stimulates swallowing, which squeezes the food into the esophagus. The esophagus, a muscular tube about 25 cm (10 in) long, passes behind the trachea and heart and penetrates the diaphragm (muscular wall between the chest and abdomen) before reaching the stomach. Food advances through the alimentary canal by means of rhythmic muscle contractions (tightenings) known as peristalsis. The process begins when circular muscles in the esophagus wall contract and relax (widen) one after the other, squeezing food downward toward the stomach. Food travels the length of the esophagus in two to three seconds.

A circular muscle called the esophageal sphincter separates the esophagus and the stomach. As food is swallowed, this muscle relaxes, forming an opening through which the food can pass into the stomach. Then the muscle contracts, closing the opening to prevent food from moving back into the esophagus. The esophageal sphincter is the first of several such muscles along the alimentary canal. These muscles act as valves to regulate the passage of food and keep it from moving backward.