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Difficulty swallowing is also called dysphagia. It is usually a sign of a problem with your throat or esophagus —the muscular tube that moves food and liquids from the back of your mouth to your stomach. Although dysphagia can happen to anyone, it is most common in older adults, babies, and people who have problems of the brain or nervous system.
There are many different problems that can prevent the throat or esophagus from working properly. Some of these are minor, and others are more serious. If you have a hard time swallowing once or twice, you probably do not have a medical problem. But if you have trouble swallowing on a regular basis, you may have a more serious problem that needs treatment.
Normally, the muscles in your throat and esophagus squeeze, or contract, to move food and liquids from your mouth to your stomach without problems. Sometimes, though, food and liquids have trouble getting to your stomach. There are two types of problems that can make it hard for food and liquids to travel down your esophagus:
A dry mouth can make dysphagia worse. This is because you may not have enough saliva to help move food out of your mouth and through your esophagus. A dry mouth can be caused by medicines or another health problem.
Dysphagia can come and go, be mild or severe, or get worse over time. If you have dysphagia, you may:
If you are having difficulty swallowing, your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and examine you. He or she will want to know if you have trouble swallowing solids, liquids, or both. He or she will also want to know where you think foods or liquids are getting stuck, whether and for how long you have had heartburn, and how long you have had difficulty swallowing. He or she may also check your reflexes, muscle strength, and speech. Your doctor may then refer you to one of the following specialists:
To help find the cause of your dysphagia, you may need one or more tests, including:
Your treatment will depend on what is causing your dysphagia. Treatment for dysphagia includes:
In rare cases, a person who has severe dysphagia may need a feeding tube because he or she is not able to get enough food and liquids.
Other Works Consulted
Chaudhury A, Mashimo H (2012). Orpharyngeal and esophageal motility disorders. In NJ Greenberger et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Endoscopy, 2nd ed., pp. 164–182. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Hirano I, Kahrilas PJ (2015). Dysphagia. In DL Kasper et al., eds., Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th ed., vol. 1, pp. 254–258. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
Krishnan K, Pandolfino E (2015). Dysphagia and esophageal obstruction. In ET Bope et al., eds., Conn's Current Therapy 2011, pp. 548–552. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
Mendelson MH (2011). Esophageal emergencies, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and swallowed foreign bodies. In JE Tintinalli et al., eds., Tintinalli's Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide, 7th ed., pp. 548–552. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Current as of: April 15, 2020
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Adam Husney, MD - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicinePeter J. Kahrilas, MD - Gastroenterology
Current as of: April 15, 2020
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Peter J. Kahrilas, MD - Gastroenterology
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