What is Dysphagia?

When a person experiences difficulty swallowing as a symptom of a disease, it is called dysphagia. It is often an indication of an issue with the esophagus or the throat. While it can affect anybody of any age, it is more often seen in babies, older adults, and patients with nervous system or brain problems.

Everyone will experience difficulty swallowing occasionally during their life. It is when it happens on a regular basis that the condition should be examined.

When the muscles in the esophagus and throat work normally, they contract to help move liquids and food from the mouth to the stomach. Several things could cause these muscles to malfunction. Most often, it happens either because the nerves and muscles are not working properly (stroke, immune system issues, brain injury, etc.) or something is blocking the esophagus or the throat. Dysphagia can be made worse by a dry mouth.

What are the Symptoms of Dysphagia?

People with dysphagia may experience it off and on. Symptoms can be severe or mild, or they may gradually become worse as the condition progresses.

Symptoms include

  • Choke, cough, or gag when swallowing
  • Problems swallowing on the first try
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Feeling of food or liquid stuck in throat or chest
  • Heartburn
  • Pressure or pain in chest
  • Weight loss

Dysphagia Causes

Since swallowing is a complex process, numerous conditions can lead to dysphagia.

  • Neurological disorders. Particular interferences of the nerves can alter the process of starting and controlling swallowing. Some of the neurological diseases that can cause dysphagia include multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s’ disease, muscular dystrophy, dementia, and motor neuron disease.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This disease damages the esophageal tissues. The acid in the stomach can back up into the esophagus and create scarring and spasms. In return, the esophagus narrows.
  • Cancer and its treatment. Certain types of cancers can cause swallowing difficulty. Similarly, cancer treatment options such as radiation therapy can cause inflammations and consequent scarring of the esophagus.
  • Blockages from foreign bodies. Sometimes food or other objects block the esophagus for a while. Aging individuals with dentures and those people with chewing difficulties are more susceptible to the lodging of food in the throat area.
  • Achalasia. This condition does not allow the lower esophageal muscles to relax and allow food to move through the stomach. As a result, it may make you bring food back to the throat. This condition also worsens with time.
  • Infections such as thrush and tuberculosis can lead to esophagus inflammations and inhibit swallowing.

How is Dysphagia Treated?

Each case of dysphagia is treated differently, since treatment is dependent on what is determined to be the cause.

Treatments include

Some patients will benefit from exercises designed to strengthen the muscles used for swallowing. Dilation can be used to widen the esophagus if some areas are too narrow. In some cases, a doctor will recommend a change in what foods the patient eats or prescribe medications. An endoscopy can help remove any object stuck in the esophagus, while surgery may sometimes be required to correct the problem or remove blockages.

Dysphagia Prevention

Prevention of dysphagia is possible if the health condition causing it is also preventable. However, it may be difficult to prevent it if it is attributed to a neurological cause.

Occasional difficulties in swallowing can be prevented by adopting slow eating techniques and chewing the food well before swallowing.

Early detection and treatment of GERD disease can reduce the risk of dysphagia. Similarly, early detection and treatment of infections such as tuberculosis can prevent inflammations of the esophagus which constrain swallowing.

People are also advised against smoking and heavy alcohol intake as they have also been linked to dysphagia.

Last Reviewed:
September 20, 2016
Last Updated:
December 18, 2017