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What Is Dysphagia (Difficulty Swallowing)?

Brooke Phillips, CWCMS
Editor | Shield HealthCare
12/09/13  7:46 PM PST
Disabled Boy With Sisters

What is Dysphagia?

Dysphagia (pronounced “dis-fey-juh”) is the medical term used to describe difficulty swallowing.  In the normal swallow reflex, muscles in our throat and esophagus contract in a complex action that moves food from the mouth into the esophagus and down to the stomach.  For many different reasons, individuals with dysphagia are unable to swallow food or liquids normally.  Dysphagia can strike anyone at any time, though is more commonly found in older adults, premature babies, and individuals whose brain or nervous system may not be working normally.

Some causes of dysphagia include:

  • Physical malformations
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Neuromuscular diseases
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Spinal Cord Injury
  • Tumors
  • Stroke

Types of Dysphagia

There are two major types of dysphagia: Oropharyngeal and Esophageal.

Oropharyngeal Dysphagia. A person with oropharyngeal dysphagia has trouble moving food from the mouth into the upper esophagus.  Its symptoms include the following:

  • Difficulty trying to swallow
  • Choking or breathing saliva into your lungs while swallowing
  • Coughing while swallowing
  • Regurgitating liquid through your nose
  • Breathing in food while swallowing
  • Weak voice
  • Weight loss

Esophageal Dysphagia. A person with esophageal dysphagia has trouble moving food through the esophagus into the stomach. It is the most common kind of dysphagia, with symptoms that include the following:

  • Pressure sensation in your mid-chest area
  • Sensation of food stuck in your throat or chest
  • Chest pain
  • Pain with swallowing
  • Chronic heartburn
  • Belching
  • Sore throat

Dysphagia Treatment

Dysphagia can range from minimal to severe, and the consequences of undetected dysphagia can be serious, including aspiration pneumonia, malnutrition, dehydration, weight loss, and airway obstruction. Unfortunately, this condition often goes undetected because its symptoms do not appear to be severe enough.  Paying close attention to symptoms and visiting a physician on a regular basis may help diagnose dysphagia before the onset of more serious consequences.  Treatment methods include the use of prescription medicine, physical therapy, exercises to help stimulate swallowing, procedures that open the esophagus, and even surgery.

For more information about dysphagia, visit WebMd.com, MayoClinic.com and Hopkinsmedicine.org, which provided source information for this article.

This article is designed for educational use only and does not replace the advice of a medical professional. If you are concerned about symptoms of dysphagia in you or a loved one, please contact your primary care physician.

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