Swallowing is something we usually don’t even think about. But when something goes wrong, it can be a serious, even life-threatening, problem.
Some 15 million Americans suffer from swallowing disorders, also known as dysphagia. While gulping something down seems like a simple process, in fact our bodies go through three stages in moving food and liquids from our mouths to our stomach. Problems can arise anywhere along that path.
- Stage 1: You put food or liquids into your mouth, chew them if necessary, and move them to the back of your mouth. Problems at this stage can include lack of strength or feeling in the mouth, which can let food fall into your throat without having been chewed.
- Stage 2: Food or liquids move from the mouth to the throat, which triggers muscle contractions. Two things needs to happen here. A muscular valve at the bottom of the throat must open to let food through. At the same time other muscles close the trachea to keep food out of your airway. If these muscles aren’t working properly, food or liquids can get into your airway, causing you to choke and possibly leading to pneumonia.
- Stage 3. Food or liquids move through the esophagus, which contracts to push the contents toward the stomach. At the end of the esophagus, a valve open to dump the food or liquid into the stomach. At this stage, weak muscles may prevent food from moving all the way down, or may let stomach acids enter the esophagus.
What causes swallowing problems?
A number of problems can cause dysphagia, some easier to deal with than others. They include:
- Medications that make your mouth dry
- Missing teeth or poorly fitting dentures
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD
- Injuries or surgery in the neck or mouth
- Brain or nerve damage from stroke, brain or spinal cord injury, or diseases like muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, or Alzheimer’s
- Tumors in the mouth, throat, or esophagus
Signs of a swallowing disorder
You would think it would be obvious if you have a swallowing disorder, but in fact some people don’t realize they do. They have unconsciously learned to cope by eating more slowly or avoiding certain foods. But swallowing problems are not something to ignore. Choking or getting food or liquid into your lungs can be very serious.
Symptoms that something is wrong with your swallowing process include:
- Coughing or choking while eating or immediately after eating
- Making a gurgling sound or having a hoarse-sounding voice while eating or after eating
- Needing to spend extra time chewing or swallowing
- Having food or liquid leak from your mouth
- Feeling like food is stuck in your throat or you have a lump in your throat
- Pain when swallowing
- Weight loss if swallowing problems have gone on for a while
- Pneumonia if food or liquid has gone into the airway instead of the esophagus
Help for swallowing disorders
Several specialists may be involved in treating swallowing problems, depending on the cause, including otolaryngologists, gastroenterologists, speech-language pathologists, and occupational therapists.
If you’re having problems swallowing, please don’t hesitate to call us at Arizona Otolaryngology Consultants (AOC).
AOC is a comprehensive ENT clinic that provides care for all diseases of the ears, nose, throat, and sinuses. The physicians at AOC have the highest level of training and expertise in ENT care and ENT subspecialty care, which includes the management of pediatric airway, cancer, skull base surgery, advanced head and neck surgical and reconstructive procedures, craniofacial surgery, and more. Call 602-264-4834 to request an appointment today.
The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace or counter a physician’s advice or judgment. Please always consult your physician before taking any advice learned here or in any other educational medical material.