Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulty swallowing. It can affect people of all ages, but is most common in the elderly. With a swallowing disorder, you have trouble moving food or liquid from your mouth to your stomach. It may be painful or even impossible to swallow, and you might have the sensation of food sticking in your throat or chest.

Dysphagia Causes

Most of us experience difficulty swallowing at one time or another. This often occurs when we eat too quickly or don’t chew our food thoroughly enough. But when it occurs regularly, it could be the sign of a serious medical condition. Normally, we don’t usually give swallowing a second thought. Foods and liquids pass from the mouth through the pharynx and esophagus before entering the stomach, where they are digested. When people have a swallowing disorder, food and liquids get stuck in the throat, chest, or sternum, causing pain and other symptoms such as choking, gagging, coughing, drooling, regurgitation, chest pain, reflux, and sore throat.

A variety of conditions can cause dysphagia. Natural aging, nervous system disorders, acid reflux, hiatal hernias, head or spinal cord injuries, scleroderma, and cancer of the head, neck, or esophagus can all lead to difficulty swallowing.

Swallowing difficulties can make eating a painful and difficult experience. Persons suffering from dysphagia are at risk for malnutrition, dehydration and weight loss when they are unable to consume enough calories, and may experience upper respiratory infections or pneumonia when food or liquids enter the airway.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Your doctor will perform diagnostic tests in order to determine what is causing your swallowing problem. A barium x-ray or swallowing study and an examination of your esophagus with an endoscope can help identify abnormalities in the esophagus and measure the abilities of your mouth and throat muscles. A manometry allows your doctor to insert a tube in your esophagus and measure the muscle contractions as you swallow.

Treatment varies depending on the diagnosis. It may entail lifestyle and dietary changes, swallowing exercises, surgery, or medications. Severe dysphagia might require a liquid diet or insertion of a feeding tube to ensure you receive adequate nourishment.