When you swallow, you are chewing food and moving it to the esophagus, a tube that connects to the stomach. Dysphagia, the medical term for difficulty swallowing, is characterized by the sensation of food or liquid getting stuck in the throat or chest. There are numerous factors that can cause swallowing difficulty, most of them fairly benign.
The Swallowing Process
Few of us give much thought to the act of swallowing, but it’s actually a complex process that involves around 50 pairs of muscles and nerves.
There are four stages that make up the swallowing process:
- Stage 1: Oral preparation stage. Food is chewed to prepare for swallowing.
- Stage 2: Oral stage. The tongue pushes food or liquid to the back of the mouth.
- Stage 3: Pharyngeal stage. Food or liquid passes through the pharynx into the esophagus.
- Stage 4: Esophageal stage. Food or liquid passes through the esophagus and enters the stomach.
What Is Swallowing Disorder (Dysphagia)?
Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulty swallowing, or the sensation that food is stuck in the throat or chest. It usually indicates an inability of the esophagus to properly move food from the mouth to the stomach. It can affect people of all ages, but is most commonly associated with the elderly.
What Are the Symptoms of Dysphagia?
When we swallow, food or liquid is carried from the mouth through the pharynx and esophagus into the stomach, where it is digested. This is a mostly involuntary process, one that requires little thought. But when something goes wrong, food or liquid can become stuck or lodged in the throat, chest, or sternum.
Swallowing becomes painful or difficult, and may be accompanied by choking, coughing, gagging, drooling, regurgitation, or hoarseness. Other symptoms might include chest pain, heartburn, belching, sore throat, and weight loss.
A number of conditions can cause dysphagia. Children may suffer from congenital defects or physical deformations, or conditions like cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy. In adults, neuromuscular disorders, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), stroke, smoking, alcohol, and poor teeth can all lead to swallowing difficulties.
How Is Dysphagia Treated?
How a swallowing disorder is treated depends on the cause, and typically involves medications, swallowing exercises, or surgery. Lifestyle changes often work in patients whose dysphagia results from GERD; avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and spicy foods, and eating smaller, more frequent meals may be enough to prevent acid reflux and the resultant swallowing difficulties from occurring.
Medications include antacids, muscle relaxants and drugs to limit the amount of stomach acid produced.
A surgical procedure to stretch or dilate the esophagus when it is too narrow often helps resolve the issue. Swallowing therapy involving chewing and swallowing techniques can help stimulate the muscles and nerves responsible for swallowing. The most severe cases of dysphagia may require a liquid diet or feeding tube.
Chewing your food slowly and thoroughly is the best way to prevent dysphagia.