Difficulty while swallowing is known as dysphagia, and it can typically feel like food is “sticking” in your throat or chest when you try to swallow.
Dysphagia, not to be confused with achalasia, can be an unwelcome side effect if you suffer from acid reflux (also known as GERD). When stomach acid backs up, it irritates the delicate tissues lining the esophagus. Persistent heartburn can cause scarring/narrowing of your esophagus or esophageal spasms, leading to dysphagia symptoms.
Symptoms of Dysphagia:
- Not being able to swallow
- Sensation of food “sticking” in your throat or chest
- Food or liquid “coming back up” after swallowing (regurgitation)
- Coughing/choking/gagging when swallowing
- Unexpected weight loss
Swallowing can also become painful, which is known as odynophagia. This burning, squeezing sensation while swallowing is from irritation to the lining of the esophagus that can occur from acid reflux/GERD, achalasia (when your lower esophageal muscle doesn’t relax to allow food to properly enter your stomach), or a bacterial infection.
Risk factors for Dysphagia
Dysphagia occurs most often in older adults, but it should not be dismissed as a typical sign of aging. Dysphasia can also happen due to neurological disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, or from sudden neurological damage such as a stroke or brain/spinal cord injury.
Tests to diagnose Dysphagia
There are several endoscopic tests used to diagnose dysphagia, including an upper endoscopy (esophagogastroduodenoscopy or EGD), esophageal manometry, esophagram (barium swallow test), and imaging scans.
- Upper GI endoscopy (esophagogastroduodenoscopy or EGD) – a gastroenterologist can view your esophagus by using a flexible tube with a camera on the end.
- Esophageal Manometry – Similar to an upper GI endoscopy, esophageal manometry also involves inserting a flexible endoscopic tube with a camera on the end, but it has the added benefit of measuring the pressures and muscle contractions in your esophagus.
- Esophagram – X-ray test involving barium (for contrast). This test allows your gastroenterologist to view what happens when you swallow food/liquid.
- Imaging scans – These may include a CT scan or an MRI.
Treatment for Dysphagia
Exercises & Behavioral Changes
A speech pathologist may be able to recommend exercises and behavioral changes to help you swallow.
Esophageal dilation can be helpful for people diagnosed with a tight esophageal sphincter (achalasia) or an esophageal stricture. In this procedure, a gastroenterologist can use an endoscope with a special balloon attached to stretch narrow parts of your esophagus, allowing food to pass more easily.
Medication & Surgery
Occasionally, surgical intervention might be needed, such as in the instance of an esophageal tumor.
There are also medications that can assist with dysphasia, including smooth muscle relaxants (to treat esophageal spasms) or antacids to reduce stomach acid.
If you experience difficulty swallowing on a regular basis, you may have a more serious condition requiring treatment. Request an appointment with a gastroenterologist if you suspect you have dysphasia so you can be properly diagnosed and effectively treated.