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What You Need to Know About Swallowing Disorders

What You Need to Know About Swallowing Disorders

There are different types of swallowing disorders. You might experience difficulty when it comes to swallowing, while with other types, you might lose the ability to swallow normally.

Whatever the degree of the swallowing disorder, it can seriously affect the quality of life of the person suffering from it. This article will look into the definition of swallowing disorders, its causes, treatment, and other relevant information regarding this health problem.

Swallowing Disorders Defined

Swallowing disorders are known as dysphagia, coming from the root words dys (bad or disordered) and phag (to eat). Generally, it refers to any condition where you experience difficulty moving food from the mouth to the stomach. At times, pain can be associated with the condition.

In severe cases, the pain can be so intense that swallowing may not even be possible at all. You should not confuse this condition with the occasional difficulties that you may have when you eat too fast or you swallow large chunks of food. Those are normal, but if difficulty eating is persistent, then that could be a sign of dysphagia.

What Are the Causes of Dysphagia?

It might not seem like it, but swallowing is a very complex process.But like any other complex process, there are so many things that can go wrong and things that can affect it.

There are two types of swallowing disorders: esophageal dysphagia and oropharyngeal dysphagia.

Esophageal dysphagia

These are the common causes for esophageal dysphagia:

  • One of the more common causes of Esophageal dysphagia is when the lower esophageal muscle does not relax properly. When that happens, the food may be brought back up to your throat.
  • Diffuse spasm is when the esophagus contracts in an uncoordinated manner. For those with this type of dysphagia, this usually happens after swallowing.
  • When the esophagus becomes narrow, this can trap food pieces that normally should pass through. Scars caused by acid reflux can cause this form of narrowing.
  • Esophageal tumors can cause problems when swallowing. As the tumor becomes larger, the more difficult it becomes to swallow.
  • There are times when foreign objects and bodies can block the food from going down your esophagus.

Oropharyngeal dysphagia

The throat muscles play an important role in the act of swallowing. When these muscles weaken, then swallowing can be affected significantly. This condition is known as oropharyngeal dysphagia.

The following are common causes of oropharyngeal dysphagia:

  • Certain neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease can affect the throat muscles and cause difficulty in swallowing.
  • Neurological damage such as those caused by having a stroke can cause a person to have difficulty swallowing.
  • Pharyngoesophageal diverticulum is a condition where a small pouch forms in the throat. Food particles collect in the pouch, which can lead to difficulties in swallowing.
  • Some cancers and the treatment used for them can cause a person to have difficulty swallowing.

What Are the Symptoms of Dysphagia?

Here are the most common symptoms associated with dysphagia:

  • Experiencing pain when swallowing food
  • Inability to swallow at all
  • Getting the feeling that food is stuck in your throat after swallowing
  • Excessive drooling
  • Frequent heartburn
  • Having food or stomach acid go back up your throat
  • Having to cut food into smaller pieces just to be able to eat

What Causes Heartburn?

Risk Factors

Who Is at Risk?

There are two main risk factors for dysphagia:

  • Old age
  • Health conditions such as cerebrovascular accidents (i.e. stroke)

Because of the normal effects of aging on the esophagus, the elderly have a greater chance of developing dysphagia, although it is not a normal sign of aging. People who are suffering from certain health conditions are also more likely to develop dysphagia.

Complications of Dysphagia

Difficulty in swallowing can make it hard for a person to get enough nutrition. It can also lead to dehydration since even drinking may be affected. What’s more, the food which has difficulty going down your esophagus can get into your airway and introduce bacteria to your lungs. That can lead to pneumonia.

A more immediate health risk is that of choking. There is always the risk of choking when the food does not go down properly.

When Should You See a Doctor?

You need to see a doctor if you experience difficulty swallowing on a regular basis. Keep in mind that dysphagia can be an indicator of a more serious condition. If you feel that the obstruction in your throat is interfering with your breathing, that should be considered a medical emergency. The obstruction can worsen and prevent you from breathing completely.

Several tests can localize the source of dysphagia. Examples include a modified barium swallow test and a functional endoscopic evaluation swallowing test.

Dysphagia Prevention and Treatment

Unfortunately, dysphagia cannot be prevented.

If its cause is not an underlying condition, you can reduce the difficulty and the pain caused by dysphagia by cutting the food you eat in smaller pieces, chewing your food carefully, and eating more slowly. Early detection can also help prevent more complicated problems from developing.

The treatment for dysphagia is based on its causes. If it is caused by a problem with your throat muscles, then exercises for those muscles can be effective. Sometimes, doctors may also tell patients to change the food they eat.

Your doctor may use dilation to expand the esophagus. Under this treatment, a device carefully expands the narrowed airway. Surgery can also be used to do the same, especially when there is something blocking the esophagus like a tumor.

Your doctor may also prescribe medication to treat the condition.


Dysphagia can range from the simple difficulty in swallowing to the total inability to eat food. If you experience difficulties when you are eating and it is getting progressively worse, then you should immediately seek medical attention.

Read Also:

8 Common Questions About Heartburn Answered

How to Know If You Have GERD

How to Handle Choking in Young Children

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Dysphagia, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dysphagia/symptoms-causes/syc-20372028, Accessed Aug. 26, 2020 Esophageal Diverticulum, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/16977-esophageal-diverticulum, Accessed Aug. 26, 2020 Parkinson's Disease, https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/parkinsons-disease, Accessed Aug. 26, 2020 9 ways to relieve acid reflux without medication, https://www.health.harvard.edu/digestive-health/9-ways-to-relieve-acid-reflux-without-medication, Accessed Aug. 26, 2020 Difficulty Swallowing (Dysphagia), https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/tp23477spec, Accessed Aug. 26, 2020
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Written by Den Alibudbud Updated Aug 26, 2020
Fact Checked by Hello Doctor Medical Panel