Many of us have had the occasional difficulty swallowing, known as dysphagia, especially if we’re eating quickly or take too big of a bite after picking up lunch at Lucky’s Burgers & Shakes. However, if you frequently have trouble eating or drinking your food, it may be caused by an underlying medical condition.
Is Difficulty Swallowing Common?
Yes. Regular difficulty swallowing is a common issue, especially in older adults. Research has found that somewhere between 10-22% of adults over 50 and 40% of adults over the age of 60 have trouble swallowing.
Symptoms associated with dysphagia include:
- Experiencing pain while swallowing
- Complete inability to swallow
- Feeling like food is stuck in your throat or in your chest behind the sternum
- Frequent regurgitation
- Regular heartburn (acid reflux)
- Coughing or gagging when trying to swallow
- Unexplained weight loss
What Causes Dysphagia?
The act of swallowing is actually quite complex, involving many different muscles and nerves. Any condition that weakens or damages these parts of the body, as well as conditions that narrow the back of the throat or esophagus, can lead to dysphagia. Some potential causes include, but are not limited to:
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Damage caused by stomach acid can lead to scarring or spasms of the lower esophagus.
- Diffuse spasm. This condition affects the involuntary muscles in the lower esophagus and causes poorly coordinated, high-pressure contractions after swallowing.
- Foreign bodies. Food or other objects can partially block the throat or esophagus, leading to trouble swallowing.
- Neurological disorders or damage. Disorders such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease, as well as damage from a spinal cord injury or a stroke, can lead to dysphagia.
- Esophageal stricture. A stricture means a narrowed esophagus, which can trap pieces of food and make it difficult to swallow.
Should I See a Doctor for Frequent Difficulty Swallowing?
Yes. Regular difficulty swallowing can lead to a decrease in quality of life and cause issues like dehydration, malnutrition, choking and aspiration pneumonia. Finding the cause and seeking treatment can help improve your well-being.
Depending on the cause, treatment options may include:
- Medication like proton pump inhibitors to reduce acid reflux.
- Dietary changes.
- Eliminating or minimizing alcohol and caffeine, which can dry out your mouth and throat.
- Learning exercises and swallowing techniques to coordinate muscles and restimulate the nerves that trigger the swallowing reflex.
- Make sure to eat slowly and chew carefully at every meal.
- Muscle relaxants or corticosteroids.
- In more severe cases, surgery may be required.
- If you ever feel as though food is stuck in your throat or you are having difficulty breathing as a result, seek emergency medical attention.
To learn more or to schedule an appointment, call Arizona Desert Ear, Nose & Throat Specialists today.