Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing)
Occasional difficulty with swallowing food or fluids isn't typically a cause for major concern. Sometimes this may happen when you eat too fast or don't chew your food well enough. However, persistent difficulties with swallowing may indicate a more serious medical condition known as dysphagia, which requires treatment.
Dysphagia may indicate an issue with the muscles in your esophagus, which is the tube that moves food and liquid from the back of your mouth into your stomach. People who live with dysphagia usually need more time and take more effort to swallow.
Having a dry mouth can sometimes make dysphagia worse because saliva is what helps your mouth move food into the esophagus. A dry mouth can be caused by medication, lack of proper hydration, or another health condition.
More than 15 million Americans are affected by dysphagia. This condition can occur at any age, although it's more common in older adults. The prevalence may be as high as 22% in those over 50 years of age.
What causes dysphagia? 1
Any number of problems or medical conditions may make swallowing more difficult and cause dysphagia.
Here are a few of the potential causes and risk factors:
- The muscles and nerves that help move food through the throat and esophagus are not working correctly. This might be caused by:
- Muscles and nerves in the mouth, throat, and esophagus not working correctly, which can be caused by stroke, brain injury, and even sometimes a severe spinal cord injury or other conditions affecting the nervous system like multiple sclerosis, post-polio syndrome, muscular dystrophy, or Parkinson's disease.
- Swelling of the throat or chronic inflammation due to an immune system condition
- Esophageal spasms, where the muscles of the throat squeeze suddenly
- Scleroderma, which causes the tissues of the esophagus to harden and narrow and can even cause food to come back up
- Blockage in the throat or esophagus, such as a tumor or growth, which may or may not be cancerous
- GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease), which is where stomach acid backs up regularly into the esophagus and causes ulcers and scars to form, ultimately narrowing the throat
- Esophagitis (inflammation of the esophagus), which can be caused by GERD, infections, getting a pill stuck, or even an allergic reaction
How is Dysphagia treated?
You should discuss your symptoms with your prescribing healthcare practitioner to determine a proper treatment option based on your individual situation.
In addition, a registered speech pathologist can perform a swallowing evaluation, which may include a test to check your mouth's strength and swallowing movements, a challenge tray of various food textures and liquid consistencies, and/or a Modified Barium Swallow Study (MBSS), which is a state-of-the-art radiographic (x-ray) procedure conducted by a speech pathologist and a radiologist.
There are a number of potential treatments that may help with your dysphagia, which include but are not limited to:
- Making simple changes to your diet, such as easier-to-swallow foods and liquids
- Use food and beverage thickeners such as Thick-It!, which can produce a desired consistently quickly and easily without changing the taste or appearance of both hot and cold foods and beverages
- Choosing easier to swallow pre-thickened foods such as ready-to-eat- purees and ready-to-drink shakes and liquids
- Manual dilation by your doctor, which is a procedure that carefully expands narrow areas of the esophagus
- Endoscopy or surgery to remove objects that may be blocking the esophagus
- Medication (over-the-counter or prescription, depending upon your condition), which may help dysphagia related to heartburn, GERD, or esophagitis
- Adaptive equipment
- Deep pharyngeal neurological stimulation, which is an intense stimulation program of the oral-pharyngeal muscles
- Thermo-stimulation, a technique to trigger an automatic swallowing reflex
- Performing exercises to strengthen the throat muscles
- Making changes to your posture
Other Resources on Dysphagia:
Following are additional sources of information: