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What Is Dysphagia?

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assessing impaired swallowing

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  • The onset of dysphagia usually indicates that there’s a problem either in your esophagus or your throat, both of which are responsible for pushing food down into your stomach
  • Since swallowing is connected to a number of muscles and nerves, many esophagus- and throat-related disease can cause dysphagia

Dysphagia is an umbrella term used to describe difficulties in swallowing that are caused by various disorders.1 The onset of this condition usually indicates that there’s something wrong either in your esophagus or your throat, both of which are responsible for pushing food down into your stomach.2 If left untreated, dysphagia may even lead to complications that may further endanger your health.3

The 2 Main Types of Dysphagia That Can Appear

Dysphagia is classified into two types, depending on which area of your digestive tract is affected:4

  • Oropharyngeal dysphagia — Also known as high dysphagia,5 this condition commonly affects the mouth or the throat, or both. It is characterized by difficulties in moving food from the oral cavity down to the esophagus. Attempting to do so can result in coughing, choking or gagging whenever you eat or drink.
  • Esophageal dysphagia — This subtype is relegated to the esophagus only and is generally identified by a sensation that feels like food is stuck in your throat or the middle of your chest. You may be able to swallow successfully, but whatever you chew or drink has trouble reaching the stomach.

Underlying Diseases Associated With Dysphagia

Since swallowing is connected to a number of muscles and nerves, many esophagus- and throat-related disease can cause dysphagia. Other related diseases include:6

  • Stroke — The National Stroke Association notes that a stroke can cause paralysis in 9 out of 10 survivors, and the affected muscles can include your throat or esophagus.7 For most patients, improvements can be seen in as little as two weeks after a stroke, although long-term swallowing problems may remain, affecting you quality of life and exposing you to complications like malnutrition and dehydration.8
  • Multiple sclerosis — This autoimmune disease damages myelin, the fatty protective covering of your nerve cells, leading to neurological symptoms that can impact your everyday life.9 Aside from dysphagia, vision problems, muscle spasms, fatigue and balance problems are common symptoms of MS.10
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease Also known as GERD, this condition causes acid reflux, an action wherein stomach acids flow back up the esophagus, causing a symptom known as heartburn. If your lifestyle and diet choices are not addressed, GERD may lead to esophageal ulcers and laryngeal inflammation.11

Many other conditions are known to cause dysphagia as a side effect. Visit the Causes page for more information about each of them.

Dysphagia May Cause Severe Problems if Not Treated Right Away

Left untreated, dysphagia can lead to various complications that may endanger your health. Prominent examples everyone should know about include:12

Aspiration pneumonia — This is a respiratory infection that develops when your throat accidentally moves food into the airways instead of the esophagus. This can irritate your lungs and even cause them damage.

Elderly citizens and young children are generally at higher risk of this ailment, although it can occur in anyone. Symptoms to watch out for include wheezing, chest pain, difficulty swallowing and breathing and a high fever.13

Dehydration — This is a side effect your body experiences when it has depleted fluid levels. In the context of dysphagia, this may happen due to difficulties getting water and other fluids into your system. Again, the elderly are more prone to this condition, and severe dehydration may require immediate treatment in a hospital setting.14

Symptoms to watch out for include increased thirst, dry mouth, headache, decreased urine output and nausea. In severe cases, dehydration may lead to lethargy, seizure and shock.15

Malnutrition — When your body is not getting enough nutrients due to swallowing problems, you may experience malnutrition. Your chances of becoming malnourished becomes higher if you have had a stroke, which is a potential cause of dysphagia.16

If you’re experiencing swallowing problems and notice that you’ve been losing weight, feeling weaker, losing concentration and experiencing low moods, you likely may be malnourished.

MORE ABOUT DYSPHAGIA

Dysphagia: Introduction

What Is Dysphagia?

Dysphagia Symptoms

Dysphagia Causes

Dysphagia Treatment

Dysphagia Prevention

Dysphagia Diet

Dysphagia FAQ


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