Sometimes I’ll see patients with the complaint that they’re having trouble swallowing, or a sensation that food is getting stuck in their throat and doesn’t go down easily. The medical term for this is a hard word to pronounce –dysphagia (dis-faj-ah) – and could stem from a number of causes. If you experience difficult swallowing, here’s what you should know about it.
Dysphagia – What Trouble Swallowing Could Mean
Trouble swallowing – dysphagia – rarely occurs on its own. It usually accompanies some other condition of which it is a symptom. It most frequently occurs in older people, and those with brain or nervous system disorders. It can occur at all ages depending on the condition that causes it. These conditions can include:
- Developmental disabilities (more frequently seen in children)
- Cancer of the head or neck tissues – tongue, thyroid, larynx, or even brain tumors
- Neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, dementia
- Head injury
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) – this can cause erosions and ulcers in the esophagus, which form scar tissue and obstruct the throat.
- Scleroderma – hardening of tissues of the mouth and throat
- Esophageal webs – these are thin pieces of tissues that stick out from the walls of the esophagus. These can be congenital (with birth) or can occur later in life.
- Ill-fitting dentures – shifting dentures can slide backward preventing, or impeding, swallowing of food.
Dysphagia can affect your quality of life as it can lead to malnutrition and dehydration, which can cause your health to deteriorate further into conditions like:
- Aspiration pneumonia – food gets taken into the lungs and causes fluid build-up.
- Chest infections – as a result of bacteria from improperly swallowed/undigested food.
- Social withdrawal – the inability to eat normally can cause people to stay away from situations where eating is a function.
There are 2 types of dysphagia that characterize how the condition functions:
- Dysphagia caused by mechanical problems with the mouth or throat
- Dysphagia caused by mechanical problems with the esophagus
What Can You Do About Dysphagia?
Depending on the underlying condition causing your dysphagia, there are several things that can be done to treat it:
- Speech and language therapy to learn new swallowing techniques, especially after stroke or surgery
- Making food, drinks, pills easier and safer to swallow by changing the consistency of them. Liquefying foods to an applesauce consistency can help get them down. Thickening drinks a little can also help get them down. Most pill-form medications can be translated into a liquid formula. Vitamins can be purchased in liquid form that requires taking only 1-2 tablespoons per day.
- Alternate feeding devices may be necessary, either temporary or long-term that include feeding tubes through the nose or stomach. Liquid nutrition formulas are then delivered through the tubes to the patient.
- Dilation of the throat or esophagus by tubes designed to stretch those tissues.
- Removal of obstructing tissues, tumor making swallowing difficult.
- Alteration of poorly fitting dentures.
If you begin to have trouble swallowing, or if it’s something that has been present for a while and seems to be worsening, please see your doctor for a complete examination of your throat and esophagus, as well as your general overall medical condition. As I tell my patients, if the conditions that have caused dysphagia are found early, the chances of complete recovery, and prevention of worsening health, are greater. In short, it’s not a symptom to ignore!
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
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