What is Dysphagia?

Dysphagia refers to difficulty swallowing. It may make it tougher and more time consuming for you to transfer food from your mouth, through your esophagus, and down into your stomach. In some cases, dysphagia can cause pain while in other cases, it can make swallowing impossible. While dysphagia is more common in elderly patients, it can arise at any age.

Causes of Dysphagia

The physical act of swallowing is more complex than people realize. Here's why: There are approximately 50 sets of muscles and nerves that must function in order for you to swallow easily and properly. Due to the complexity of the multiple muscles and nerves involved in swallowing, there are many potential causes of dysphagia, including the following:

  • Acid reflux or heartburn
  • A condition called achalasia that affects the lower esophageal muscle
  • Inflammation of the epiglottis (epiglottitis) or esophagus (esophagitis)
  • Cancer in the esophagus (esophageal cancer) or stomach (gastric adenocarcinoma)
  • Herpes that affects the esophagus or oral area
  • Infectious mononucleosis (mono)
  • Spasms in the esophagus muscles
  • Foreign objects stuck in the throat that go unnoticed
  • Damage to the esophageal tissue
  • Radiation therapy for cancer
  • Neurological disorders, damage, or conditions

Symptoms and Diagnosis of Dysphagia

The symptoms of dysphagia can include the following:

  • Pain while swallowing
  • Difficulty or the inability to swallow
  • Recurrent heartburn or acid reflux
  • Abrupt unexplained weight loss
  • Gagging or choking when swallowing
  • Uncontrolled drooling
  • A hoarse voice
  • Feelings that food is getting lodged in your throat or chest area

You should visit your ENT specialist if you are facing recurring symptoms of dysphagia. In the event you're experiencing breathing issues, an object becomes lodged in your throat, or you're unable to swallow, you should seek emergency care immediately.

Diagnosis of dysphagia will commonly include a physical exam and a series of tests to determine the specific cause of your dysphagia. Tests may include x-rays, swallowing studies, or an endoscopy of your esophagus.

Treatments for Dysphagia

Treatment for your dysphagia will depend on the type that is causing the swallowing issues. If you have oropharyngeal dysphagia, you may be treated through swallowing exercises and techniques that help to overcome your dysphagia.

If you have esophageal dysphagia, your treatment may include one or more of the following:

  • Surgery to address the condition that is causing the issues such as an esophageal tumor, pharyngoesophageal diverticulum, or an achalasia.
  • Medications, such as those to reduce acids in the stomach or muscle relaxants to address esophageal spasms.
  • Esophageal dilation, which involves your doctor using an endoscope with an inflatable balloon like device that stretches the diameter of your esophagus.

For severe cases of dysphagia, where it is difficult or impossible to swallow, your ENT specialist may recommend a feeding tube or a specific liquid diet.


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