From time to time, everyone gets a lump in his or her throat that can make it difficult to swallow. When difficulty swallowing is an ongoing issue, the problem can affect other areas of your life. Dysphagia, or a swallowing disorder, can develop for a number of reasons. It's more common in older people and usually occurs when the throat muscles are weak, notes the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders. There are several dysphagia treatment options available, depending on the cause and severity of the condition.
Medical issues that can lead to dysphagia include a stroke, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), tumors and diabetes. In some cases, dental problems, such as dentures that don't fit or severely decayed teeth, can cause swallowing problems. It's also possible for a person to develop a swallowing problem as a result of treatment for another condition, such as during chemotherapy treatment.
The ideal dysphagia treatment depends in part on the cause of the swallowing issue and the stage at which it occurs. As the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) points out, there are three stages in the swallowing process during which the difficulty can arise.
- The first stage is the oral phase, or the actual act of chewing and sucking on food.
- The second stage is the pharyngeal phase, or the actual act of starting to push food down the throat, closing the trachea to keep food from getting into the airway.
- The last stage is the esophageal phase, during which food is pushed from the esophagus to the stomach.
Dysphagia Treatment Options
Treatment options for dysphagia often take either a compensatory approach or a rehabilitative approach, ASHA notes. Compensatory treatment approaches don't actually solve the swallowing problem, but they can teach you to cope with it. Treatments might include turning your head a certain way to help food travel down the esophagus more easily or changing the consistency of the food you eat to help you swallow it with ease.
Rehabilitative approaches to dysphagia treatment aim to improve your swallowing ability, leading to a lasting improvement. Treatments might include exercises that build muscle strength in the face and esophagus or learning a swallowing technique that ensures the airway is blocked off, preventing food from traveling down the trachea into the lungs. One technique, known as the supraglottic swallow, involves holding the breath before swallowing, to close off the airway, instructs The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Medical and Surgical Treatments
Rehabilitation therapy might be all some patients need to successfully treat their swallowing issues. But in cases where the problem is linked to an ongoing medical issue, such as GERD, or to a problem with the shape and size of the esophagus, medical or surgical treatment might be needed. Medical treatment can include taking antacids or other medications to control GERD symptoms. If dysphagia is connected to salivary control problems or to thickened saliva, medications may be prescribed to manage saliva.
A surgical procedure called myotomy might be needed if the swallowing issue is due to a narrow esophagus or to a tight muscle in the esophagus. During surgery, the muscles of the lower esophageal sphincter are cut, allowing food to travel more easily from the esophagus to the stomach, explains Memorial Hermann.
Dental Care and Dysphagia
Swallowing problems can sometimes be related to dental issues. The oral phase of swallowing depends on the number of teeth you have and how healthy those teeth are, concludes a review published in Current Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Reports. Although taking good care of your teeth won't directly relieve dysphagia, good oral care is a crucial part of preventing and minimizing swallowing issues. Brushing at least twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, such as Colgate Total Clean Mint, helps prevent cavities, plaque and tartar build-up.
Often, treatment for dysphagia involves an entire team of medical professionals: a dentist, speech therapist, general practitioner, and a surgeon specializing in ear, nose and throat procedures. Working together, your medical team can help determine the best action plan to help ease any swallowing issues.