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Peristalsis is a radially symmetrical contraction and relaxation of muscles which propagates in a wave down a muscular tube, in an anterograde fashion. Peristalsis is often found in the contraction of smooth muscle tissue to propel food/chyme through a digestive tract, such as the human gastrointestinal tract. It is wave contraction of longitudinal and circular muscles preceded by wave relaxation of these muscles. Earthworms use a similar mechanism to drive their locomotion.1 The word comes from New Latin and is derived from the Greek peristallein, "to wrap around," from peri-, "around" + stallein, "to place".
In much of the gastrointestinal tract, smooth muscle contracts in sequence to produce a peristaltic wave, which forces a ball of food (called a bolus while in the esophagus and gastrointestinal tract and chyme in the stomach) along the gastrointestinal tract. Peristaltic movement is initiated by circular smooth muscles contracting behind the chewed material to prevent it from moving back into the mouth, followed by a contraction of longitudinal smooth muscles which pushes the digested food forward. Catastalsis is a related intestinal muscle process.2
After food is chewed into a bolus, it is swallowed and moved through the esophagus. Smooth muscles contract behind the bolus to prevent it from being squeezed back into the mouth. Then rhythmic, unidirectional waves of contractions will work to rapidly force the food into the stomach. This process works in one direction only and its sole purpose is to move food from the mouth into the stomach.2
In the esophagus, two types of peristalsis occur.
- First, there is a primary peristaltic wave, which occurs when the bolus enters the esophagus during swallowing. The primary peristaltic wave forces the bolus down the esophagus and into the stomach in a wave lasting about 8–9 seconds. The wave travels down to the stomach even if the bolus of food descends at a greater rate than the wave itself, and will continue even if for some reason the bolus gets stuck further up the esophagus.
- In the event that the bolus gets stuck or moves slower than the primary peristaltic wave (as can happen when it is poorly lubricated), stretch receptors in the esophageal lining are stimulated and a local reflex response causes a secondary peristaltic wave around the bolus, forcing it further down the esophagus, and these secondary waves will continue indefinitely until the bolus enters the stomach. The process of peristalsis is controlled by medulla oblongata.
Esophageal peristalsis is typically assessed by performing an esophageal motility study.
Once processed and digested by the stomach, the milky chyme is squeezed through the pyloric sphincter into the small intestine. Once past the stomach a typical peristaltic wave will only last for a few seconds, travelling at only a few centimeters per second. Its primary purpose is to mix the chyme in the intestine rather than to move it forward in the intestine. Through this process of mixing and continued digestion and absorption of nutrients, the chyme gradually works its way through the small intestine to the large intestine.2
In contrast to peristalsis, segmentation involves coordinated smooth muscle contractions Migrating motor complex that result in that churning and mixing without pushing materials further down the digestive tract.
As opposed to the more continuous peristalsis of the small intestines, faecal contents are propelled into the large intestine by periodic mass movements. These mass movements occur one to three times per day in the large intestines and colon, and help propel the contents from the large intestine through the colon to the rectum.
The earthworm is a limbless annelid worm with a hydrostatic skeleton that moves by means of peristalsis. This hydrostatic skeleton consists of a fluid-filled body cavity surrounded by an extensible body wall. The worm moves by radially constricting the anterior portion of its body, resulting in an increase in length via hydrostatic pressure. This constricted region propagates posteriorly along the worm's body. As a result, each segment is extended forward, then relaxes and re-contacts the substrate, with hair-like setae preventing backwards slipping.3 Earthworms increase four orders of magnitude during their lifetime and during this period the dimensions increase according to geometric similarity, or 'isometry'. Unlike rigid skeletons which cannot exhibit both geometric and stress similarity, the hydrostatic skeleton can maintain both forms which may be due to decoupling of weight and skeletal function.3
Peristalsis is also being used for robot locomotion.4
- Peristaltic pump - Mechanical device that uses peristaltic action to drive fluids
- Catastalsis - Downward wave of contraction occurring in the gastrointestinal tract during digestion
- Basal electrical rhythm - Slow wave of electrical activity that can initiate contraction
- "Earthworm - Muscular System".
- Marieb, Elaine N. & Hoehn, Katja "Human Anatomy & Physiology" 8th Ed., Benjamin Cummings/Pearson, 2010
- Quillin, K.J. Ontogenetic Scaling of Hydrostatic Skeletons: Geometric, Static, Stress and Dynamic Stress Scaling of the Earthworm Lubricus Terrestris
See also Peristaltic Linear Motion. A flexible tube constricted with rollers which produces linear motion when pressurised with air or liquids.
- Interactive 3D display of swallow waves at menne-biomed.de
- Peristalsis at the US National Library of Medicine Medical Subject Headings (MeSH)
- Physiology at MCG 6/6ch3/s6ch3_9
- Overview at colostate.edu