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The 2 Main Types of Dysphagia and Their Underlying Causes

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  • Esophageal dysphagia refers to the feeling of food that becomes stuck on the base of your throat after you’ve just swallowed
  • Aging leads to normal wear and tear of the esophagus, prompting dysphagia. Seniors also have a higher chance of developing neurodegenerative diseases that can cause their esophagus to function improperly
  • Oropharyngeal dysphagia (high dysphagia) specifically focuses on problems in the mouth or throat

Dysphagia can be a complicated disease because it can be caused by various underlying conditions. Swallowing is a complex action that requires multiple muscles, and many illnesses can interfere with this important movement. This article outlines the possible causes of dysphagia depending on what area is affected.

If You Feel Something Is Stuck in Your Throat, You May Have Esophageal Dysphagia

Esophageal dysphagia refers to the feeling of having food stuck on the base of your throat after you’ve just swallowed. There are many probable causes that can lead to this condition:1

  • Achalasia — This occurs when your lower esophageal sphincter (LES) fails to open and allow food to pass through to your stomach, resulting in food being regurgitated.2 It is generally attributed to an autoimmune condition3 or a hereditary factor.4
  • Diffuse spasm — This is a condition wherein poorly coordinated contractions occur in your esophagus. This causes swallowing problems, as well as a squeezing pain in your chest.5 In some cases, regurgitation may occur due to these irregular movements.
  • Esophageal stricture — It refers to the narrowing or tightening of your esophagus,6 which causes dysphagia. It can cause you to lose weight because you’re not getting enough food.7
  • Esophageal tumors — The growth of an esophageal tumor, especially as it gets bigger, can gradually hinder your ability to swallow food.
  • Foreign bodies — Sometimes, chunks of food can block the esophagus. Older people who have dentures and have difficulty swallowing their food are generally at risk of this circumstance because the food has solid bits that can’t pass through the pathway smoothly.
  • Lower esophageal ring — The lower esophageal ring is an abnormal stricture that causes a ring-like narrowing in the esophagus,8 resulting in symptoms of dysphagia.9
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease — Commonly known as GERD, this condition occurs when stomach acids flow back up the esophagus,10 causing heartburn and narrowing as a reaction to the chemicals. A 2008 study in Germany notes that 75 percent of people with severe GERD suffer from dysphagia.11
  • Eosinophilic esophagitis — A chronic autoimmune disease, eosinophilic esophagitis occurs when a large amount of white blood cells called eosinophils are in the esophagus.12 This causes adverse changes in the organ that can lead to dysphagia. Food allergies are commonly attributed as the main reason.13
  • Scleroderma — Classified as an autoimmune rheumatic disease,14 scleroderma attacks healthy cells, causing scarring and stiffening of connective tissue that results in the weakening of the lower esophageal sphincter.15 This can cause GERD as a side effect.16
  • Radiation therapy —This type of cancer treatment can cause dysphagia in your esophagus as a side effect.17
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Oropharyngeal Dysphagia Is the Gradual Weakness of Your Throat Muscles

Oropharyngeal dysphagia (high dysphagia)18 specifically focuses on problems in the mouth or throat.19 Typically, the main triggers of this condition are neurodegenerative diseases, muscular problems and central nervous system disorders like a stroke.20 The muscles of the affected area become weaker than normal, making it difficult to move food or water down the throat and into the esophagus. Associated conditions related to oropharyngeal dysphagia include:21

  • Cancer — The onset of cancer in the head or mouth can lead to dysphagia.22
  • Neurological disorders — Diseases like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and muscular dystrophy can result in dysphagia one way or another, depending on which throat muscle is affected.23
  • Neurological damage — Neurological damage refers to instances when the brain is struck with a sudden condition that causes injury, such as stroke, brain trauma or a wound in the spinal cord.24
  • Pharyngeal diverticula — Also known as a pharyngeal pouch or Zenker's diverticulum,25 this condition is characterized by the formation of pouches or pockets in the esophagus. Small spaces that don’t cause symptoms usually don’t require treatment, but large ones may cause swallowing problems and will require appropriate treatment.26

Poor Eating Habits and Aging Are Risk Factors of Dysphagia

Dysphagia can occur to anyone at any age. However, the elderly are more susceptible to it. Aging leads to normal wear and tear of the esophagus, prompting dysphagia. Seniors also have a higher chance of developing neurodegenerative diseases that may cause their esophagus to function improperly.27

Another risk factor linked to dysphagia is poor eating habits. Those who eat too fast and don’t chew their food properly run the risk of getting food stuck in their esophagus. Eating while lying down or not drinking enough fluids during mealtimes may also cause dysphagia.28


Dysphagia: Introduction

What Is Dysphagia?

Dysphagia Symptoms

Dysphagia Causes

Dysphagia Treatment

Dysphagia Prevention

Dysphagia Diet

Dysphagia FAQ

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