Trouble swallowing (dysphagia) means it takes more time and effort to move food or liquid from your mouth to your stomach. Having trouble swallowing may also be associated with pain. In some cases, swallowing may be impossible.
Occasional difficulty swallowing, which may occur when you eat too fast or don't chew your food well enough, usually isn't cause for concern. But persistent problems may indicate a serious medical condition requiring treatment. Signs and symptoms associated with dysphagia may include:
Being unable to swallow
Bringing food back up (regurgitation)
Coughing or gagging when swallowing
Having food or stomach acid back up into your throat
Having frequent heartburn
Having pain while swallowing (odynophagia)
Having to cut food into smaller pieces or avoiding certain foods because of trouble swallowing
Having the sensation of food getting stuck in your throat or chest or behind your breastbone (sternum)
Unexpectedly losing weight
Swallowing is complex and a variety of conditions can interfere with this process. Sometimes the cause of dysphagia can't be identified. However, dysphagia generally falls into one of the following categories:
Esophageal. Esophageal dysphagia refers to the sensation of food sticking or getting hung up in the base of your throat or in your chest after you've started to swallow.
Oropharyngeal. Certain conditions can weaken your throat muscles, making it difficult to move food from your mouth into your throat and esophagus when you start to swallow. You may choke, gag or cough when you try to swallow or have the sensation of food or fluids going down your windpipe or up your nose.
Treatment for dysphagia depends on the type or cause of your swallowing disorder.
For oropharyngeal dysphagia, your doctor may refer you to a speech or swallowing therapist, and therapy may include:
Learning exercises. Certain exercises may help coordinate your swallowing muscles or restimulate the nerves that trigger the swallowing reflex.
Learning swallowing techniques. You may also learn ways to place food in your mouth or to position your body and head to help you swallow.
Treatment approaches for esophageal dysphagia may include:
Esophageal dilation. Our ENT specialists may use an endoscope with a special balloon attached to gently stretch and expand the width of your esophagus or pass a flexible tube or tubes to stretch the esophagus (dilation).
Surgery. You may need surgery to clear your esophageal path.
Medications. Difficulty swallowing associated with GERD can be treated with prescription oral medications to reduce stomach acid. You may need to take these medications for an extended period.
Whether you have oropharyngeal or esophageal dysphagia, our ENT specialists partner with Gastroenterology and Speech/Swallow Therapy teams to deliver the comprehensive care you need close to home.