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Swallowing Disorders: Everything You Need to Know About Dysphagia

Medically reviewed by Diana Rose G. Tolentino, MD, MBA · Ear Nose and Throat · HMICare Clinic & Diagnostic Center

Written by Den Alibudbud · Updated Mar 23, 2021

Swallowing Disorders: Everything You Need to Know About Dysphagia

There are different types of swallowing disorders. You might experience difficulty when it comes to swallowing while others completely lose the ability to swallow normally. 

Whatever the degree of the swallowing disorder is, it can seriously affect the quality of life of the person suffering from it. This article will look into the definition of causes of swallowing disorders, their 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). It means difficulty or discomfort in swallowing. Generally, it refers to any condition where it takes longer than normal to move food down from the mouth to the stomach. 

In some cases, 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 the difficulty in eating is persistent, then that could be a sign of dysphagia.

While dysphagia can happen at any age, it is common among older people.

What Are the Causes of Dysphagia?

What are the causes of swallowing disorders? It might not seem like it but swallowing is a very complex process. We have just gotten used to doing it without any second thoughts that it seems simple to us. Like any other complex process, there are so many things that can go wrong.

There are two types of swallowing disorders: Esophageal dysphagia and Oropharyngeal dysphagia.

Esophageal dysphagia

These are the usual 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. That usually happens after swallowing.
  • When the esophagus becomes narrow, that can trap food pieces that normally should go 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 swallowing. When these muscles weaken, then the swallowing can be affected significantly. That condition is what’s known as  Oropharyngeal dysphagia. The following are the common causes of  Oropharyngeal dysphagia:

  • Certain neurological disorders like Parkinson 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 in swallowing.
  • Pharyngoesophageal diverticulum is a condition where there is a small pouch 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 when swallowing.

Symptoms of Dysphagia

What are the most common symptoms associated with Dysphagia? 

  • Experiencing pain when swallowing food
  • The inability to swallow at all
  • Getting the feeling that food gets stuck in your throat after you have swallowed
  • Excessive drooling
  • Frequent heartburns
  • Food or stomach acid going back up your throat
  • Having to cut food into smaller pieces just to be able to eat
  • Risk Factors of Dysphagia

    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 taken to be a normal sign of aging. People who are suffering from certain health conditions are also more likely to develop Dysphagia.

    swallowing disorders

    Complications of Dysphagia

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

    A more immediate complication of Dysphagia 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 get worse and prevent you from breathing completely.

    There are also tests, which can localize the source of dysphagia. Examples include a modified barium swallow test and a functional endoscopic evaluation swallowing test.

    Dysphagia Prevention and Prevention

    Unfortunately, Dysphagia cannot be prevented. If it is not caused by an underlying condition, you can reduce the difficulty and the pain caused by Dysphagia by cutting the food you eat into 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.

    Dilation can be used to expand the esophagus. Under this treatment, a device can be used to carefully expand the narrowed airway. Surgery can also be used for the treatment, especially when there is something blocking the esophagus like a tumor.

    There are also some medications that can be used for treating the condition.

    Final Thoughts

    Dysphagia can range from the simple difficulty in swallowing to the total inability to eat food that a patient would require a feeding tube. If you experience difficulties when you are eating and it is getting progressively worse, then you should immediately seek medical attention to see if there is an underlying condition causing it.

    Learn more about Throat Conditions here


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

    Medically reviewed by

    Diana Rose G. Tolentino, MD, MBA

    Ear Nose and Throat · HMICare Clinic & Diagnostic Center

    Written by Den Alibudbud · Updated Mar 23, 2021

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