A laryngo-tracheo-esophageal cleft (LC) is a congenital malformation characterized by an abnormal, posterior, sagittal communication between the larynx and the pharynx, possibly extending downward between the trachea and the esophagus.
The estimated annual incidence of LC is 1/10,000 to 1/20,000 live births, accounting for 0.2% to 1.5% of congenital malformations of the larynx. These incidence rates may however be underestimated due to difficulty in diagnosing minor forms and a high mortality rate in severe forms. A slightly higher incidence has been reported in boys than in girls. No specific geographic distribution has been found.
Depending on the severity of the malformation, patients may present with stridor, hoarse cry, swallowing difficulties, aspirations, cough, dyspnea and cyanosis through to early respiratory distress. Five types of laryngo-tracheo-esophageal cleft have been described based on the downward extension of the cleft, which typically correlates with the severity of symptoms: Type 0 laryngo-tracheo-esophageal cleft to Type 4 laryngo-tracheo-esophageal cleft (see these terms). LC is often associated with other congenital abnormalities/anomalies (16% to 68%), mainly involving the gastro-intestinal tract, which include laryngomalacia, tracheo-bronchial dyskinesia, tracheo-bronchomalacia (mostly in types 3 and 4), and gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD). The syndromes most frequently associated with an LC are Opitz/BBB syndrome, Pallister Hall syndrome, VACTERL/VATER association, and CHARGE syndrome (see these terms).
Laryngeal clefts result from failure of fusion of the posterior cricoid lamina and abnormal development of the tracheo-esophageal septum. The causes of the embryological developmental anomalies leading to LC are not known but are thought to be multifactorial.
The age of diagnosis depends mainly on the severity of the clinical symptoms and therefore on the extent of the LC. Diagnosis is made either based on clinical manifestations or on investigations, such as endoscopy, X-ray, CT scan, performed for other conditions. Differential diagnoses include tracheo-bronchial fistula, gastro-esophageal reflux disease and neurological swallowing disorders, as well as laryngomalacia and laryngeal palsy (see these terms).
Prenatal diagnosis of LC has never been reported, although associated anomalies may be detected on fetal ultrasonography.
LC appears to be mostly sporadic although some familial cases with suspected autosomal dominant transmission have been reported.
Once the cleft is diagnosed, it is essential to determine its length to orient the management and treatment approach. Management involves maintenance of satisfactory ventilation, prevention of secondary pulmonary complications as a result of repeated aspirations, and adequate feeding. Endotracheal intubation may be required for respiratory distress in severe cases. Treatment requires endoscopic or external surgery to close the cleft. Surgery should be performed as early as possible to avoid complications related to aspiration and gastric reflux, except in type 0 and type 1 cases in which conservative measures must first be attempted.
The prognosis is variable depending on the severity of the LC and associated malformations. Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment and management help to reduce mortality and morbidity.
Last update: November 2011
- Pr Noël GARABEDIAN
- Dr Nicolas LEBOULANGER