Definition

Dysphagia is difficulty eating because of disruption in the swallowing process. If dysphagia is severe, you may not be able to take in enough fluids and calories to stay healthy. In severe cases, even saliva is difficult to swallow. Complications may include aspiration pneumonia (food or liquids are pulled into your lungs), malnutrition, dehydration, weight loss, and airway blockage.

Causes

Some causes of dysphagia include:

Narrowing of the Esophagus

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Risk Factors

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.

Risk factors include:

Symptoms

Symptoms include:

  • Trouble swallowing
  • Constant feeling of a lump in the throat
  • Pain with swallowing
  • Drooling
  • Coughing or choking with eating or drinking
  • Recurrent pneumonia
  • Nasal sounding voice
  • Sensation of food sticking in the chest
  • Weight loss

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. The exam will focus on the nervous system. The doctor will also watch you chewing and swallowing.

Tests may include:

  • Nasopharyngoscopy—using a scope to view the throat
  • Blood tests—to check for infection and thyroid function
  • Esophagram with Barium Swallow —x-ray test of the esophagus
  • Endoscopy—a thin, lighted tube inserted down the throat to examine the esophagus
  • Videoradiographic studies—x-rays during which swallowing is filmed on video
  • Ultrasound —a test that uses sound waves to examine structures inside the body
  • Manometry—tests the amount of pressure generated in various parts of the esophagus
  • pH studies—tests the degree of acidity in the esophagus
  • CT scan —a type of x-ray that uses computers to make pictures of the neck and chest
  • Chest x-ray —to check for pneumonia

Treatment

Treatment may include:

Treating a Medical Condition

Treating the underlying condition may help improve your swallowing problems.

Swallowing Techniques and Exercises

A speech-language pathologist can teach you:

  • Techniques to help you swallow more easily
  • Exercises that strengthen the muscles needed for swallowing

Diet Changes

In severe cases, you may need to use high-nutrition liquid drinks. If you have trouble swallowing thin liquids, you may need powders to thicken liquids so they are easier to swallow.

Progressive Dilatation

If the esophagus is too narrow, instruments may be used to slowly stretch the esophagus.

Other Nonsurgical Treatments

  • Biofeedback
  • Nasogastric feeding tube

Surgery

In severe cases, surgery may be needed to:

  • Release an overly tight muscle
  • Remove a stricture or web that is blocking the esophagus
  • Place a stent (a tiny tube) to hold the esophagus open
  • Place a feeding tube through the abdominal wall

Prevention

Most causes of dysphagia cannot be prevented. If you have a medical condition, get treatment so that you don't suffer complications, such as dysphagia.