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Dysphagia

A person with dysphagia has difficulty swallowing. Usually, dysphagia is the symptom of an underlying condition, not a diagnosis itself.

Depending on the underlying cause, the onset and severity of dysphagia will vary. Some people experience dysphagia in bouts, while in others it consistently worsens over time. Dysphagia presents as:
  • An inability to swallow food or liquids on the first try
  • Coughing, choking or gagging when attempting to swallow
  • Painful swallowing
  • A feeling of food or liquid being stuck in the chest or throat
  • Food or liquid coming back up through the throat, nose or mouth
  • Weight loss due to an inability to swallow food and/or keep it down
In most cases, dysphagia is due to a problem with the throat or esophagus, the muscular tube that pushes food from the mouth down into the stomach. When healthy, the muscles of the esophagus squeeze together in a coordinated fashion to move food and liquids downward. If these muscles become weakened or constricted, dysphagia can result.

If you have consistent trouble swallowing, one of Temple's highly experienced otolaryngologists can diagnose and treat the root cause.

Dysphagia Treatment at Temple

In general, dysphagia falls into one of two categories: esophageal dysphagia or oropharyngeal dysphagia. Each type has its own potential causes. Determining the cause of dysphagia is the first step toward successful treatment.

Patients with esophageal dysphagia feel as if food is sticking in their throat after they’ve swallowed. This can be caused by one of many problems with the esophagus, including:
  • Achalasia: when the esophageal sphincter fails to allow food to pass into the stomach
  • Diffuse spasm: when the esophageal muscles tighten abnormally after swallowing
  • Esophageal stricture: when the esophagus has become narrow, usually due scar tissue or GERD, to the point that large pieces of food get trapped
  • Foreign bodies, typically unchewed food or objects, blocking the esophagus
  • Eosinophilic esophagitis: a condition marked by abnormal cell growth in the esophagus, usually the result of a food allergy. It can make swallowing difficult
  • Radiation therapy: a cancer treatment that can result in scarring and inflammation of the esophagus
Patients with the other type of dysphagia, called oropharyngeal dysphagia, have difficulty moving food from their mouth into their esophagus as soon as they’ve started swallowing. This is due to a weakness of the mouth and/or throat muscles. There are several potential causes, including neurological damage or disorders, cancer and cancer treatments, or pharyngeal diverticula—a small pouch that forms just above the esophagus and interferes with swallowing.

Once the cause of dysphagia has been determined, Temple’s board-certified head and neck specialists can determine the best course of treatment. Treatment options include:
  • Exercising weakened swallowing muscles
  • Learning how to position the body to promote successful swallowing
  • Dietary changes
  • Dilation: a small device placed into the esophagus to gently expand any narrowed areas
  • Endoscopy: a long, thin scope for removing foreign objects blocking the esophagus
  • Surgery to remove a diverticula or tumor, or repair the esophageal sphincter
  • Medicines to prevent stomach acid from entering the esophagus, or for treating bacterial infections
  •  Feeding tubes are used as a last resort if a patient is not able to consume enough foods or liquids to survive