Trouble swallowing, known medically as dysphagia, occurs when food feels like it is sticking in your throat or chest. It is usually the result of an improperly functioning esophagus and tends to affect the elderly more than any other age group.
Occasional difficulty swallowing affects almost everybody and isn’t cause for alarm; sometimes we simply eat too quickly or don’t chew our food thoroughly. Individuals with swallowing disorders experience persistent problems with chewing and swallowing. Normally, food and liquids are transported from the mouth to the stomach when we swallow, passing through the pharynx and esophagus before digestion takes place. When you suffer from a swallowing disorder, foods and liquids may become lodged in the throat, chest or sternum. This causes painful or difficult swallowing and may be accompanied by choking, coughing, gagging, regurgitation, drooling, hoarseness, chest pain, reflux, sore throat and weight loss.
Causes of dysphagia vary. They include aging, neuromuscular disorders, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), hiatal hernias, scleroderma, esophageal webs that cause partial blockages and esophageal cancer.
A barium swallow study or fluoroscopy, in conjunction with x-rays, laryngoscopy and other diagnostic tests, can help determine what is causing your swallowing disorder. Treatment depends upon the diagnosis and may involve medications, surgery or swallowing exercises. When acid reflux is to blame, dietary changes – eliminating spicy foods, alcohol and caffeine, for instance – can be helpful in preventing dysphagia. Practice chewing your food slowly and thoroughly. In extreme cases, a feeding tube may be required to ensure the patient receives proper nutrition and maintains a healthy weight.