Dysphagia Symptoms and Reasons for Difficult Swallowing

If you are having difficulty swallowing, you may be experiencing dysphagia symptoms. Dysphagia describes the feeling of not being able to pass food and liquids from the mouth to the stomach. Most factors causing this condition are temporary and not serious. Rarely, dysphagia can indicate a more serious condition or disease. If your symptoms persist, consult your doctor.

Anatomy of Swallowing

We swallow hundreds of times a day. We don't often think about the process, so you may not know there are four stages to swallowing properly.

The first stage is oral preparation, where you chew food in the mouth. The second stage is the tongue propelling the food and liquids to the back of the mouth, triggering the swallowing response. The third stage involves passing the food and drink to the pharynx, which connects to the esophagus. Lastly, the food travels from the esophagus into the stomach.

While we have some voluntary control over the first two stages of swallowing, under normal conditions stages three and four occur involuntarily, without conscious thought to initiate the process.

Types of Dysphagia

Why might you have difficulty swallowing? Dysphagia fall into two categories: esophageal and oropharyngeal.

In the case of esophageal dysphagia, you might have the sensation that the food is getting stuck in your throat or chest after swallowing. This can be attributed to many factors, including muscle weakness and spasms, allergies, acid reflux, tumors and objects lodging in the throat. The Mayo Clinic explains it may also happen after radiation treatment for head and neck cancer and with certain autoimmune diseases like scleroderma.

Oropharyngeal dysphagia weakens your throat muscles and interferes with the stage of swallowing that moves the food and liquids from your mouth into your throat. This results in gagging or coughing while swallowing. You might feel as if food is going down your trachea, also known as your windpipe, and up into your nose. This type of dysphagia can result from neurological conditions like Parkinson's disease, cancer treatments and other circumstances, reports the Mayo Clinic.

Who Gets Dysphagia?

Certain health conditions can lead to dysphagia, but older adults can experience dysphagia symptoms due to normal wear and tear on the esophagus. Certain prescription medications and supplements have side effects that may cause swallowing difficulties. These may include anticholinergic agents found in some antidepressants and allergy medications, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery. People who have had a stroke or spinal injury may also experience swallowing difficulties.

A study published in Neurogastroenterology & Motility found that dysphagia affects men and women equally in the U.S. population, and the condition is most frequently attributed to acid reflux.

When to See a Doctor

If you are having prolonged episodes of dysphagia, losing weight or vomiting, it's time to make an appointment with your doctor.

Your dentist or dental hygienist may be the first professional who recognizes oral signs of dysphagia symptoms. They will refer you to the proper specialist for diagnosis and treatment. Treatment for dysphagia may include medication, swallowing therapy or surgery.

Most often, simply adjusting your diet or changing the way you eat is all that's needed to solve the problem. Slowing down and chewing slowly and thoroughly will allow saliva to break down the food and help you swallow and digest successfully.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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As we get older, dental care for adults is crucial. Here are a few of the conditions to be aware of:

Gum disease – if your home care routine of brushing and flossing has slipped and you have skipped your regular dental cleanings, bacterial plaque and tartar can build up on your teeth. The plaque and tartar, if left untreated, may eventually cause irreparable damage to your jawbone and support structures, and could lead to tooth loss.

Oral cancer – according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, men over the age of 40 have the greatest risk for oral cancer. About approximately 43,000 people will be diagnosed with cancer of the mouth, tongue or throat area, and the ACS estimates that about 7,000 people will die from these cancers. The use of tobacco products and alcohol increases the risk of oral cancer. Most oral cancers are first diagnosed by the dentist during a routine checkup.

Dental fillings break down – fillings have a life expectancy of eight to 10 years. However, they can last 20 years or longer. When the fillings in your mouth start to break down, food and bacteria can get underneath them and can cause decay deep in the tooth.