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What is dysphagia?

Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, can have many causes. In most cases it can be partially or completely corrected.

Most people probably don't even notice when they swallow. But those with dysphagia aren't so fortunate.

People with dysphagia have difficulty swallowing. Many things can cause the disorder, and it may be temporary. But in some cases it can prevent someone from eating enough to stay well or cause an infection if food or liquid enters the lungs instead of moving properly through the throat.

That's why you should consult your doctor if you have a swallowing problem that doesn't improve on its own in a short time.

How you swallow

Swallowing is a complex process that begins when food or drink enters the mouth. The tongue then moves the food to the back of the mouth, triggering a reflex that passes it through the pharynx—the canal that connects the mouth and esophagus. At the end of the process, food passes through the esophagus—a muscular canal that extends below the tongue—and enters the stomach.

In all, some 50 pairs of muscles and many nerves work to propel your food or drink on its journey from mouth to stomach, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Causes of dysphagia

A variety of health problems can lead to dysphagia. For example:

  • Conditions that weaken or damage the muscles and nerves used for swallowing make swallowing difficult.
  • A stroke or some type of nervous system disorder may make a person unable to start the swallowing reflex.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, may interfere with the movement of food through the esophagus. GERD is a condition in which stomach acid flows backward into the esophagus. Left untreated, it can damage the esophagus, causing it to narrow.

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, some additional causes of dysphagia can include a paralyzed or unmoving vocal cord; a tumor in the mouth, throat or esophagus; or surgery in the head, neck or esophageal areas.

Diagnosis and treatment

If the cause of your dysphagia is not obvious, a doctor may examine your mouth and throat with a lighted tube. Various other tests, including ultrasound or an upper gastrointestinal (GI) series, also known as a barium swallow, may be recommended as well. Ultrasound uses sound waves to produce pictures of internal organs. In the upper GI series, you swallow a liquid barium mixture. Doctors then use special instruments to watch the barium as it travels to the stomach.

Treatment will depend on the cause of your dysphagia.

For those with GERD, lifestyle changes, such as eating a bland diet with smaller, more frequent meals and elevating the head of the bed at night, may help. Sometimes medication is also needed.

Other disorders might require the skills of other health professionals. If you have a condition such as Parkinson's disease, for instance, a speech pathologist may be able to teach you exercises to improve your ability to move food or liquid through your mouth or throat and to lower the risk of its entering your airway during swallowing. Learning new ways to eat can be helpful too.

For those who've had a stroke, seeing a neurologist may be necessary.

Medication and special procedures are used to treat some problems. For example, a muscle that is too tight may have to be released surgically. Stretching or dilating a narrowed esophagus is sometimes done as well.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, in many cases, swallowing disorders can be partially or completely corrected.

Reviewed 4/23/2020

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