When Swallowing Gets Difficult: Is It Dysphagia?

Although you normally swallow without even thinking about it, the process of swallowing is complex. It involves 50 pairs of muscles and occurs in three distinct phases. Problems with any of these muscles or phases can result in dysphagia, a disorder that causes pain or difficulty swallowing liquids, foods, or saliva. As a result, taking in enough calories to nourish the body can become a problem.

What Causes Dysphagia?

It may be caused by:

  • Surgery that can weaken the throat, like throat cancer surgery
  • Acid reflux or throat infections that narrow your esophagus
  • Stroke
  • Head injury that affects the coordination of your swallowing muscles
  • Diseases of the nervous system like cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, or Parkinson's disease
  • Dementia or memory loss, which can result in forgetting how to swallow

Dysphagia occurs most often in older adults. Not only can it make swallowing painful or difficult, dysphagia also has potentially serious side effects. If you can’t swallow enough food or liquid, it can:

  • Jeopardize your health and lead to malnutrition, dehydration, or unwanted weight loss
  • Result in food getting stuck in your throat without your ability to dislodge it
  • Cause food or liquid to get into your lungs and result in pneumonia

How Is It Treated?

Your doctor will run some tests to determine which stage of the swallowing process is causing problems. Your treatment options will be based on those findings. Treating dysphagia may require you to:

  • Change your diet to foods that have a different texture or size
  • Add thickeners to your drinks
  • Prepare your food differently so it is easier to swallow
  • Change your head or neck posture while eating

If your dysphagia is caused by a progressive condition such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease), a feeding tube in your stomach may be needed to ensure you receive the proper nutrition.

If you or someone you love has difficulty swallowing, talk with your doctor. Or, make an appointment with a physician at Premier ENT Associates to be examined by a specialist.