Know the basics
What is dysphagia?
The esophagus is a muscular tube connecting the throat (pharynx) with the stomach. The esophagus is about 20 cm long, and is lined by moist pink tissue called mucosa. The esophagus runs behind the windpipe (trachea) and heart, and in front of the spine. Just before entering the stomach, the esophagus passes through the diaphragm.
Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) means it takes more time and effort to move food or liquid from your mouth to your stomach. It is usually a sign of a problem with your throat or esophagus – the muscular tube that moves food and liquids from the back of your mouth to your stomach, occurring when you eat too fast or don’t chew your food well enough, usually isn’t cause for concern. However, persistent dysphagia may indicate a serious medical condition requiring treatment.
How common is dysphagia?
Dysphagia is common. Although dysphagia can happen to anyone, it is most common in older adults, babies, and people who have problems of the brain or nervous system. It can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
Know the symptoms
What are the symptoms of dysphagia?
The common signs and symptoms of dysphagia are
- Having pain while swallowing (odynophagia);
- Being unable to swallow;
- Having the sensation of food getting stuck in your throat or chest or behind your breastbone (sternum);
- Being hoarse;
- Bringing food back up (regurgitation);
- Having frequent heartburn;
- Having food or stomach acid back up into your throat;
- Unexpectedly losing weight;
- Coughing or gagging when swallowing;
- Having to cut food into smaller pieces or avoiding certain foods because of trouble swallowing.
There may be some signs or symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
You should contact your doctor if you have any of the following: difficulty swallowing or if weight loss, regurgitation or vomiting accompanies your dysphagia.
Know the causes
What causes dysphagia?
Esophageal dysphagia refers to the sensation of food sticking or getting hung up in the base of your throat or in your chest after you’ve started to swallow. Some of the causes of esophageal dysphagia include:
- The muscles and nerves that help move food through the throat and esophagus are not working right. This can happen if you have:
- Had a stroke or a brain or spinal cord injury.
- Certain problems with your nervous system, such as post-polio syndrome, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, or Parkinson’s disease.
- An immune system problem that causes swelling (or inflammation) and weakness, such as polymyositis or dermatomyositis.
- Esophageal spasm. This means that the muscles of the esophagus suddenly squeeze. Sometimes this can prevent food from reaching the stomach.
- Scleroderma. In this condition, tissues of the esophagus become hard and narrow. Scleroderma can also make the lower esophageal muscle weak, which may cause food and stomach acid to come back up into your throat and mouth.
- Something is blocking your throat or esophagus. This may happen if you have:
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). When stomach acid backs up regularly into your esophagus, it can cause ulcers in the esophagus, which can then cause scars to form. These scars can make your esophagus narrower.
- Esophagitis. This is inflammation of the esophagus. This can be caused by different problems, such as GERD or having an infection or getting a pill stuck in the esophagus. It can also be caused by an allergic reaction to food or things in the air.
- Diverticula. These are small sacs in the walls of the esophagus or the throat.
- Esophageal tumors. These growths in the esophagus may be cancerous or not cancerous.
- Masses outside the esophagus, such as lymph nodes, tumors, or bone spurs on the vertebrae that press on your esophagus.
Know the risk factors
What increases my risk for dysphagia?
There are many risk factors for dysphagia, such as:
- Aging. Due to natural aging and normal wear and tear on the esophagus and a greater risk of certain conditions, such as stroke or Parkinson’s disease, older adults are at higher risk of swallowing difficulties.
- Certain health conditions. People with certain neurological or nervous system disorders are more likely to experience difficulty swallowing.
Understand the diagnosis & treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is dysphagia diagnosed?
Tests may include:
- X-ray with a contrast material (barium X-ray). Your doctor can then see changes in the shape of your esophagus and can assess the muscular activity.
- Dynamic swallowing study. The images may show problems in the coordination of your mouth and throat muscles when you swallow and determine whether food is going into your breathing tube.
- A visual examination of your esophagus (endoscopy) with a thin, flexible lighted instrument.
- Fiber-optic endoscopic swallowing evaluation (FEES) with special camera (endoscope).
- Esophageal muscle test (manometry).
- Imaging scans. These may include a CT scan, which combines a series of X-ray views and computer processing.
How is dysphagia treated?
Treatment for dysphagia includes:
- Changing the foods you eat. Your doctor may tell you to eat certain foods and liquids to make swallowing easier.
- Dilation. In this treatment, a device is placed down your esophagus to carefully expand any narrow areas of your esophagus. You may need to have the treatment more than once.
- Surgery. If you have something blocking your esophagus (such as a tumor or diverticula), you may need surgery to remove it. Surgery is also sometimes used in people who have a problem that affects the lower esophageal muscle (achalasia).
- Medicines. If you have dysphagia related to GERD, heartburn, or esophagitis, prescription medicines may help prevent stomach acid from entering your esophagus. Infections in your esophagus are often treated with antibiotic medicines.
Lifestyle changes & home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage dysphagia?
The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with dysphagia:
- Exercises. Certain exercises may help coordinate your swallowing muscles or restimulate the nerves that trigger the swallowing reflex.
- Learning swallowing techniques. You may also learn ways to place food in your mouth or to position your body and head to help you swallow.
- Avoiding alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. These can make heartburn worse.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Difficulty Swallowing (Dysphagia) – Overview. http://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/tc/difficulty-swallowing-dysphagia-overview. Accessed June 12, 2016.
Difficulty Swallowing (Dysphagia). http://www.healthlinkbc.ca/healthtopics/content.asp?hwid=tp23477spec. Accessed June 12, 2016.
Review Date: May 30, 2016 | Last Modified: January 4, 2017