Swallowing Disorders (cont)
Esophageal dysphagia refers to the sensation of food sticking or getting hung up in the base of your throat or in your chest. Some of the causes of esophageal dysphagia include:
- Achalasia. This occurs when your lower esophageal muscle (sphincter) doesn’t relax properly to let food enter your stomach. Muscles in the wall of your esophagus may be weak as well. This can cause regurgitation of food not yet mixed with stomach contents, sometimes causing you to bring food back up into your throat. This type of dysphagia tends to get worse over time.
- Diffuse spasm. This condition produces multiple, high-pressure, poorly coordinated contractions of your esophagus usually after you swallow. Diffuse spasm affects the involuntary muscles in the walls of your lower esophagus.
- Esophageal stricture. Narrowing of your esophagus (stricture) can cause large pieces of food to get caught. Narrowing may result from the formation of scar tissue, often caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or from tumors.
- Esophageal tumors. Difficulty swallowing tends to get progressively worse when esophageal tumors are present.
- Foreign bodies. Sometimes, food, such as a large piece of meat, or another object can partially block your throat or esophagus. Older adults with dentures and people who have difficulty chewing their food properly may be more likely to have a piece of food become lodged in the throat or esophagus. Children may swallow small objects, such as pins, coins or pieces of toys, that can become stuck.
- Esophageal ring. This thin area of narrowing in the lower esophagus can intermittently cause difficulty swallowing solid foods.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Damage to esophageal tissues from stomach acid backing up (refluxing) into your esophagus can lead to spasm or scarring and narrowing of your lower esophagus, making swallowing difficult.
- Eosinophilic esophagitis. This condition, which may be related to a food allergy, is caused by an overpopulation of cells called eosinophils in the esophagus, and can lead to difficulty swallowing.
- Scleroderma. This disease is characterized by the development of scar-like tissue, causing stiffening and hardening of tissues. This can weaken your lower esophageal sphincter, allowing acid to back up into your esophagus and cause frequent heartburn.
- Radiation therapy. This cancer treatment can lead to inflammation and scarring of the esophagus, which may cause difficulty swallowing.
Certain problems related to your nerves and muscles can weaken your throat muscles, making it difficult to move food from your mouth into your throat and esophagus (pharyngeal paralysis). You may choke, gag or cough when you attempt to swallow, or have the sensation of food or fluids going down your windpipe (trachea) or up your nose. This may lead to pneumonia. Causes of oropharyngeal dysphagia include:
- Neurological disorders. Certain disorders, such as post-polio syndrome, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Parkinson’s disease, may first be noticed because of oropharyngeal dysphagia.
- Neurological damage. Sudden neurological damage, such as from a stroke or brain or spinal cord injury, can cause difficulty swallowing or an inability to swallow.
- Pharyngeal diverticula. A small pouch forms and collects food particles in your throat, often just above your esophagus, leading to difficulty swallowing, gurgling sounds, bad breath, and repeated throat clearing or coughing.
- Cancer. Certain cancers and some cancer treatments, such as radiation, can cause difficulty swallowing.
The following are risk factors for difficulty swallowing:
- Aging. Due to natural aging and normal wear and tear on the esophagus, and a greater risk of certain conditions, such as stroke or Parkinson’s disease, older adults are at higher risk of swallowing difficulties.
- Certain health conditions. People with certain neurological or nervous system disorders are more likely to experience difficulty swallowing.
Your doctor will likely perform a physical examination and may use a variety of tests to determine the cause of your swallowing problem.
Tests that your doctor or a specialist uses may include:
- X-ray with a contrast material (barium X-ray). For this test, you drink a barium solution. This solution coats the inside of your esophagus, allowing it to show up better on X-rays. Your doctor can then see changes in the shape of your esophagus and can assess the muscular activity. Your doctor may also have you swallow solid food or a pill coated with barium to watch the muscles in your throat as you swallow or to look for subtle blockages in your esophagus that the liquid barium solution may not identify.