If you have difficulty swallowing food or liquids, you may have a medical condition called dysphagia. If you are experiencing dysphagia, you should always be evaluated with a thorough consultation and examination by a physician for an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan and to exclude a serious illness or condition.
Dysphagia can signal a medical issue with your throat or esophagus. It’s more common in older adults, but can affect anyone. Because of our need to ingest our nutrition, this is a potentially dangerous condition.
Symptoms of Difficulty Swallowing
If an obstruction is blocking your windpipe or preventing you from breathing properly, get medical help immediately. Symptoms of swallowing difficulty can include:
- Coughing or choking when trying to swallow
- Pain while swallowing
- Unable to swallow
- Feeling like food is stuck in your throat or chest
- Heartburn / GERD
- Acid reflux
- Unexpected weight loss
Causes of Difficulty Swallowing
When you swallow, it seems like a natural act, but it’s actually composed of three actions: moving food or liquid from your mouth to your throat, squeezing it down your throat past your windpipe, and sending it down your esophagus to your stomach. Problems can occur during any of the three actions.
Mouth causes of swallowing difficulty include:
- Dry mouth, not enough saliva to move food out of your mouth, which can be caused by medications or a different health issue
Throat causes of swallowing difficulty (oropharyngeal dysphagia) include:
- Neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy or post-polio syndrome
- Neurological damage such as from a spinal cord injury or stroke
- Cancer and some cancer treatments
- A condition called pharyngeal diverticula that creates a small pouch in your throat, just above your esophagus, that collects food and leads to difficulty swallowing and other problems
Esophagus causes of swallowing difficulty (esophageal dysphagia) include:
- Esophageal muscle weakness (a condition known as achalasia)
- Esophageal stricture, a narrowing of your esophagus
- Food allergies
- Food-created blockages
- Involuntary muscle spasms
- Lymph nodes or bone spurs pressing on your esophagus
- Scar tissue caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease
- Scleroderma, when your esophagus hardens and narrows
- Tumors in your esophagus
Diagnosing Difficulty Swallowing
Because the symptoms can indicate a serious disease like cancer, you should consult one of our specialists. They will give you a physical exam and review your medical history. They’ll likely order a number of tests to narrow down the diagnosis.
An X-ray of your neck and/or chest with a contrast solution, usually liquid barium, will show where food and liquid are getting stuck; pH monitoring records the level of acid reflux in your esophagus. Finally, for our doctors to see your esophagus, they can use an upper endoscopy, fluoroscopy or laryngoscopy. A manometry allows the doctor to measure the pressure inside your esophagus.
Treating Difficulty Swallowing
For oropharyngeal dysphagia (throat causes), you may be referred to a therapist, who will give you throat and food exercises to do. You may need to alter your normal diet to avoid certain foods. For esophageal dysphagia (esophagus causes), the Midtown or Upper East Side NYC gastroenterologists may try medication or a dilating procedure to widen your esophagus. Surgery is necessary if he found a tumor or other obstruction.
Important Reminder: This information is only intended to provide guidance, not definitive medical advice. Please consult a doctor about your specific condition. Only trained, experienced gastroenterologists like our doctors can determine an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment.
As best in class NYC gastroenterologists, our doctors provide highly personalized and comprehensive care. Their philosophies regarding the doctor/patient relationship is based on trust and has earned them some of the most respected reputations in NYC.
For more information about your difficulty swallowing concerns or to schedule an appointment with one of our GI doctors, please contact our Midtown or Upper East Side NYC offices.