It's quite normal to get a lump in your throat from time to time, making it difficult to swallow. However, when this is an ongoing issue, the problem can affect other areas of your life. Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, 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. Several dysphagia treatment options are available, depending on the cause and severity of the condition.
Causes of Dysphagia
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 properly or severe cavities, can cause swallowing problems. A person may also develop a swallowing problem as a result of treatment for another condition, for example during chemotherapy treatment.
The ideal treatment of dysphagia depends in part on the cause of the swallowing issue and the stage at which it occurs. As indicated by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), there are three stages in the swallowing process during which problems can arise:
- The first stage is the oral phase, which involves the act of chewing and sucking on food.
- The second stage is the pharyngeal phase, which involves the act of starting to push food down the throat, closing the trachea to keep food from getting into the airway.
- And the final stage is the esophageal phase, during which food is pushed from the esophagus to the stomach.
Dysphagia Treatment Options
If you are suffering from dysphagia, visit your doctor or dentist to discuss solutions. Treatment options for this disorder often take either a compensatory approach or a rehabilitative approach, as noted by the ASHA. Compensatory treatment approaches don't solve the swallowing problem, but they can teach you to cope with it. Treatments can 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. Treatment can 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 travelling down the trachea into the lungs. One technique, known as the supraglottic swallow, involves holding your breath before swallowing, to close off the airway, as instructed by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Medical and Surgical Treatments
Rehabilitation therapy may be all some patients need to successfully treat their swallowing issues. However, 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 may be necessary. 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 may be required 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 minimising swallowing issues. Brushing at least twice a day 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 specialising in ear, nose and throat procedures. Working together, your medical team can help determine the best action plan to help ease any swallowing issues.