Difficulty swallowing (sometimes referred to as dysphagia) is a common problem among all age groups, especially the elderly. Typical complaints of dysphagia include food getting stuck in the throat, inability to swallow pills, and/or regurgitation. Often patients will choke on bits of food, liquid, or saliva that are not passing easily. In more extreme cases, patients may aspirate foods or liquids that will spill into the lungs, causing pneumonia at times.
The process of swallowing is very complex and requires several structures to function properly in a coordinated fashion. Swallowing is broken down into three separate phases; the oral phase, the pharyngeal phase, and the esophageal phase. During the oral phase, food is chewed up, mixed with saliva, and voluntarily pushed towards the back of the throat (oropharynx). This initiates the pharyngeal phase which represents the food being passed from the throat (pharynx) to the esophagus (the food tube leading to the stomach). In the final phase, the food or liquid is carried down to the stomach.
Swallowing issues can structural, functional, or both. The most common structural issue is inflammation of the throat and esophagus. Inflammation can be caused acid reflux (GERD), radiation exposure (as with cancer treatments), allergies (eosinophilic esophagitis), or swallowing medications without enough fluid to wash them down properly. Other structural issues might include esophageal stricture (narrowing of the esophagus), anatomical abnormalities (such as a paralyzed vocal cord), or head and neck cancerous lesions. Functional issues are caused by inability to use the swallowing muscles appropriately, and may be caused by advanced age (presbyesophagus), stroke, and other neurological or systemic conditions.
Although swallowing issues rarely indicate a serious medical condition, a thorough upper airway examination is recommended to rule out worrisome findings or treatable causes. This can be accomplished by seeing an Otolaryngologist (also known as an Ear, Nose, and Throat physician), who can perform a quick and painless in-office procedure known as a laryngoscopy. The laryngoscopy, which is performed after spraying lidocaine in the nose and mouth, allows the physicians to evaluate vital structures including the vocal cords, epiglottis, and pyriform sinuses (opening into the esophagus), which may be contributing to the swallowing issues. Sometimes additional testing and evaluation may be required. One common test is called the barium swallow study, in which X-ray images are taken while a patient drinks a liquid known as barium. At times CT or MRI imaging can be obtained if there is concern about more worrisome findings. When the swallowing does not appear to involve the upper aerodigestive tract (larynx and pharynx), the patient may be referred to follow up with another specialist known as a Gastroenterologist (GI), who may perform an esophagoscopy to directly look at the esophagus. This test is usually done under anesthesia.
Treatment options for dysphagia tend to vary. For individuals who frequently choke on foods or liquids, slowing down the swallowing process can be helpful. Patients should chew foods slowly, sit up straight when swallowing, and stay upright 15-20 minutes after eating. Better management of acid reflux can also be helpful. This can be accomplished by avoiding spicy and acidic foods and taking medications such as omeprazole or ranitidine. Sometimes treating allergy disorders can be helpful. Many swallowing disorders can also be improved by the assistance of a speech and swallow pathologist who can initiate “swallow therapy”, which is like physical therapy for dysphagia. Speech pathologists can provide specialized exercises which can help strengthen the swallow reflex. At times structural diseases that are identified may be treated with surgery.
Opinions expressed here are those of our medical writers. They are not intended as medical advice and cannot substitute for the advice of your personal physician.