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Home > Wellness > Health Library > Difficulty Swallowing (Dysphagia)
What is difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)?
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.
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.
What causes dysphagia?
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.
What are the symptoms?
Dysphagia can come and go, be mild or severe, or get worse over time. If
you have dysphagia, you may:
How is dysphagia diagnosed?
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:
How is it treated?
treatment will depend on what is causing your dysphagia. Treatment for
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
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and
Stroke (NINDS), a part of the National Institutes of Health, is the leading
U.S. federal government agency supporting research on brain and nervous system
disorders. It provides the public with educational materials and information
about these disorders.
The American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck
Surgery (AAO-HNS) is the world's largest organization of physicians dedicated
to the care of ear, nose, and throat (ENT) disorders. Its Web site includes
information for the general public on ENT disorders.
The American College of Gastroenterology is an organization of digestive disease specialists. The website contains information about common gastrointestinal problems.
The American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy is a group of doctors who have special training in using endoscopy to look at the digestive tract. On the website you can find a doctor in your area who does these procedures. The website also has patient education videos and patient information about endoscopic procedures.
This clearinghouse is a service of the U.S. National
Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the
U.S. National Institutes of Health. The clearinghouse answers questions;
develops, reviews, and sends out publications; and coordinates information
resources about digestive diseases. Publications produced by the clearinghouse
are reviewed carefully for scientific accuracy, content, and readability.
Other Works Consulted
Goyal RK, et al. (2009). Esophageal motility
disorders section of Oropharyngeal and esophageal motility disorders. In NJ Greenberger et al., eds.,
Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Endoscopy, pp. 159–171. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Katz PO, Anand G (2011).
Dysphagia and esophageal obstruction. In ET Bope, et al., eds.,
Conn's Current Therapy
2011, pp. 523–526.
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.
June 27, 2011
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & Peter J. Kahrilas, MD - Gastroenterology
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