Do you have difficulty swallowing or feel as though food is stuck in your throat? If so, you may be experiencing dysphagia. Sometimes a swallowing problem is simply due to eating too fast or not thoroughly chewing your food. This is usually nothing to worry about. But, the Mayo Clinic warns that if dysphagia persists, it may be a symptom of a larger medical condition.
How You Swallow
Most people enjoy eating, but more importantly, everyone needs to eat for nourishment. So it's critical that food and liquids can get from your mouth to your stomach. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) explains that swallowing is a three-stage process, involving 50 pairs of muscles and various nerves.
Causes of Dysphagia
While dysphagia can and does happen at any age, it's most often an issue with older adults. The University of Maryland Medical Center estimates 60 percent of nursing home patients are affected.
Although there are many causes, the NIDCD points out that illnesses, like cerebral palsy and Parkinson's disease, affect the nerves and muscles needed for swallowing, bringing about dysphagia. In addition, swallowing difficulties are often due to strokes and head injuries.
Children who have muscular dystrophy, have had open heart surgery as an infant, or are born with cleft palates usually have swallowing problems. Dysphagia can also be the result of tumors (benign or cancerous), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or any condition that causes your esophagus to narrow.
Other risk factors that could affect your ability to swallow are taking certain medications, teeth or dentures in need of repair, or smoking and alcohol use.
Signs and Symptoms of Dysphagia
When you struggle to move food from your mouth to your upper esophagus, it is called oropharyngeal dysphagia. Symptoms may involve being unable to swallow, drooling and choking, and coughing or gagging as you swallow. In addition, you may regurgitate liquids through your nose, breath saliva or food into your lungs, as well as experience a weak voice and weight loss.
Dysphagia is classified as esophageal when you have a problem moving food through your esophagus into your stomach. With this problem, you may experience pain when swallowing and feel as though food is stuck in your throat. Pressure or pain in your chest, chronic heartburn, sore throat and belching are also possible signs of esophageal dysphagia.
Treatment for swallowing difficulties depends on the severity, cause and type of complication.
If you are diagnosed with oropharyngeal dysphagia, your doctor may refer you to a speech therapist who will teach you exercises to coordinate muscles and help stimulate nerves responsible for swallowing. You may also learn head positions that make swallowing easier.
Treatments for esophageal dysphagia may involve stretching the esophagus with a special balloon or surgery to remove tumors or clear the esophagus. Medications can help with problems associated with GERD, and sometimes corticosteroids are used for esophagitis and relaxants to reduce esophageal spasms.
Keep Your Mouth Healthy
Since swallowing is dependent on chewing your food thoroughly, it's critical you maintain healthy teeth and gums. Brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, floss daily and schedule regular dental checkups and cleanings. For 12-hour protection against germs even after drinking and eating, swish with a mouthwash like Colgate Total Advanced Pro-Shield.
If occasionally you have difficulty swallowing, try taking smaller bites and chewing more carefully. But anytime dysphagia continues to be a problem, see your doctor for a thorough examination and diagnosis.