Many people suffer with difficulty swallowing. Swallowing disorders range in severity and type, but generally classified into one of two types. The general term for a difficulty in swallowing is “dysphagia.” It’s usually a sign that there’s a problem with your throat or esophagus.
Most of the time, a doctor is needed to diagnose a bona fide illness, as opposed to a temporary condition which doesn’t require medical intervention. But, regardless of the cause, if you’re suffering, you probably feel like your world is coming down around you. Not being able to swallow can be painful, scary, and downright traumatic.
Here’s why it’s happening and treatment options you should consider and ways to make your life easier.
In cases of esophageal dysphagia, the muscular tube that moves food and liquids from your mouth into your stomach suffers from a dysfunction. People suffering from this condition often have the feeling that food or liquid is hung up or stuck in the base of the throat.
Some causes include achalasia, diffuse spasm, esophageal stricture, esophageal tumors, foreign bodies, esophageal ring, gastroesophageal reflux disease, eosinophilic esophagitis, scleroderma, and radiation therapy.
With achalasia, your lower esophageal muscle doesn’t relax properly to let food enter your stomach. This might cause you to bring food back up into your throat. The muscles in your throat are supposed to help push the food down. However, if they are weak, they cannot function properly. This condition tends to worsen over time.
A diffuse spasm produces multiple high-pressure and poorly coordinated contractions in your throat, usually when you attempt to swallow. The spasm mostly affects the involuntary muscles in the walls of your lower esophagus.
When you have a stricture, it means your esophagus is narrower than normal, which can trap large pieces of food. Tumors are another, related, cause and may actually be the cause of stricture. But, tumors themselves can make it progressively more difficult to swallow.
Any foreign bodies in your throat may make it more difficult to swallow. These need to be cleared by hard swallowing or by having someone help you clear the area.
When the problem originates as a spasm or stricture, then you may need ongoing medical help and special swallowing aids. For example, many older adults need to use food thickening agents at ThickIt.com to help them swallow water because they have a decreased ability to swallow liquids normally.
Reflux disease is also common in older adults. Damage to the esophageal tissues from stomach acid backing up into your esophagus lead to spasm or scarring. This narrows the lower esophagus.
An esophageal ring is a thin area that narrows in the lower esophagus which intermittently causes difficulty swallowing.
A special type of food allergy, called eosinophilic esophagitis, can be caused by an overpopulation of cells called eosinophils, which makes it difficult to swallow normally, usually creating narrowing in the throat.
Scleroderma is the development of scar-like tissue. It causes hardening of tissues in your lower esophagus, and allows acid to back up into your throat, causing heartburn. Finally, if you’ve undergone radiation therapy, the treatment may lead to inflammation and scarring in the throat.
Some conditions weaken your throat muscles and make it difficult to swallow food. You might choke or gag, even cough, when you try to swallow. You might also have the sensation of food or fluids going down your windpipe or up into your nose.
Left untreated, this might lead to pneumonia. It can allow pathogenic bacteria responsible for the illness, to colonize the respiratory tract and cause an infection.
Oropharyngeal dysphagia can be caused by neurological disorders like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and muscular dystrophy.
Neurological damage is another cause. Sudden damage, such as a stroke, can affect your ability to swallow normally.
When a small pouch that forms and collects food particles in your throat, it can make it difficult or impossible to swallow. This condition is called pharyngeal diverticula. Finally, cancers of the throat can impede normal swallowing.
In most cases, working with your doctor will help you live a normal, or semi-normal, life. In cases where disease is degenerative, you may never fully regain normal esophageal function. However, only a doctor can tell you the extent to which your disease has progressed and what treatment options are currently available to help you.
So, if you haven’t seen your doctor, do it now. The sooner you act, the more likely he or she is to be able to help you.
Jesse Pena works in healthcare and understands the problems that people experience with issues such as Dysphagia. She likes to share her insights with an online audience and is a frequent contributor for a number of health-related websites.