Swallowing problems are often generally referred to as dysphagia, which is a condition characterized by difficulty in swallowing. Some people experience such problems on an intermittent basis, like when they eat too quickly. Persistent difficulty swallowing, however, can be a sign of an underlying condition that may require medical treatment.
Oropharyngeal dysphagia refers to swallowing problems that occur before food or liquid reaches the esophagus, the tube below the throat that leads to the stomach. This type of swallowing difficulty often causes coughing or choking. Swallowing problems that occur in the throat are more common in elderly people and may be a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, brain injury, an obstruction in the throat, or other medical conditions.
Esophageal dysphagia is a swallowing issue that causes food and liquids to get stuck in the chest or lower throat. Sometimes particles and fluids come back up through the throat and into the mouth. Swallowing problems in the esophagus are often a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or other esophageal problems, such as inflammation or cancer.
People who have trouble swallowing properly may also experience pain or discomfort when eating or drinking. A sensation of an object or lump in the throat or chest is also common. Some individuals with dysphagia experience weight loss and nutritional deficiencies as a result of not being able to eat as much of the foods they need. Respiratory problems, such as pneumonia and other infections, are a concern for people who breathe in liquids or small food particles as a result of choking or coughing when trying to swallow.
Doctors may perform a variety of tests to determine the underlying cause for a patient’s swallowing problems. A barium X-ray typically allows a doctor to view the esophagus and assess how it functions when the patient tries to swallow. The patient drinks a barium solution prior to the X-ray, so that it coats the esophagus, which allows the doctor to see it clearly. In some cases, a doctor will insert a thin, flexible instrument with a light on the end, called an endoscope, into the throat to view it and diagnose potential problems.
Treatment for dysphagia depends on the cause. Some patients are able to strengthen their throat muscles with exercises taught by a speech therapist. Surgery to remove tumors and other foreign objects may be necessary. Patients with GERD can take prescription medications to reduce stomach acid and relieve symptoms. In severe cases, a special liquid diet or feeding tube inserted into the stomach to provide nutrients may be necessary, although this is rare.