Dysphagia

What is dysphagia?

If you have a problem swallowing foods or liquids, you may have dysphagia. This means it may take more time and effort to move food or liquid from your mouth to your stomach. Difficulty swallowing may also be associated with pain. In some cases you may not be able to swallow.

What causes dysphagia?

Dysphagia occurs when there's a problem with any part of the swallowing process.

Dysphagia can be caused by any of the following:

  • A problem in the esophagus, such as an ulcer, a stricture (narrowing of the esophagus), or cancer.
  • Muscles in your mouth, throat or esophagus that don't work right.
  • A nerve or brain problem (such as stroke) that leaves your mouth, tongue, or throat muscles weak or change how your muscles coordinate.
  • Foreign bodies such as a large piece of meat or another object that become lodged in your throat or esophagus.
  • In children, swallowing difficulties can be caused by premature birth or low birth weight, nervous system disorders or cleft lip or cleft palate.

What are the symptoms of dysphagia?

Symptoms of dysphagia may include:

  • A feeling of chest pressure or pain when you swallow.
  • Choking or coughing when swallowing.
  • Vomiting after eating or drinking.
  • Aspirating (inhaling into the lungs) food or liquids when you swallow.
  • Fatigue and unexpected weight loss.
  • Frequent heartburn.

In addition, infants and children may have the following symptoms:

  • Lack of attention during feeding or meals.
  • Breastfeeding problems.
  • Food or liquid leaking from the mouth.
  • Repeated swallowing.
  • Coughing or gagging during feedings or meals.
  • Inability to coordinate breathing with eating and drinking.
  • Frequent respiratory infections.

How is dysphagia diagnosed?

Your doctor will likely perform a physical examination and use a variety of tests to determine the cause of your swallowing problem. These tests could include a barium swallow x-ray, an upper endoscopy (EGD), or an esophageal muscle test (manometry).

How is dysphagia treated?

The treatment options for dysphagia will be based on the particular type or cause of your swallowing disorder.

  • Esophagus dilation: Dilation is a procedure that your doctor can use to widen the esophagus and is most often done when a stricture is causing your dysphagia.
  • Medications: Your doctor may prescribe medications to neutralize or reduce stomach acids, or to control esophagus muscle spasms.
  • Diet modification: Eat slowly, don't talk while you eat, take small bites, sit in an upright position after meals, use a blender to puree solid foods if needed, thicken liquids with milk, juice, broth, gravy or starch to make swallowing easier.

When to seek medical advice?

Contact your doctor if you are frequently experiencing difficulty with swallowing. Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department if an obstruction causes an inability to swallow or interferes with breathing.