You may take it for granted, but swallowing water, food, or saliva is actually a very complicated process. It requires vast systems of nerves and muscles working together. Patients that struggle to swallow normally have what is known as Dysphagia. This is not a stand-alone condition but a symptom of something else. It’s why you need to schedule an appointment with an Ears, Nose, and Throat specialist (ENT) right away. The elderly are especially at risk and can end up aspirating.
The Swallowing Process
There are four distinct stages of swallowing. You do this hundreds of times every day without even realizing it.
- The oral preparation stage is where the food or liquid is made ready for swallowing. In terms of food, this means chewing your food.
- Next is the oral stage where the tongue moves food or liquid to the back of the mouth. This starts the swallowing process.
- Then comes the pharyngeal stage, where the contents of the mouth go through the pharynx, throat, and esophagus.
- Last is the esophageal stage, where it transfers from the esophagus into your stomach.
Symptoms of Dysphagia
Pay attention to these symptoms if dysphagia is suspected:
- A constant feeling of something, either water or liquid, being stuck in the throat.
- Problems controlling saliva production, i.e. drooling.
- The sensation of a lump in the throat.
- Discomfort in the chest or throat.
- Coughing or choking when trying to swallow, drink, or eat. This is due to substances being pulled into the lungs.
- Difficulties sustaining a normal weight caused by swallowing interfering with nutritional intake.
What Is Causing My Dysphagia?
The most common cause is Gastroesophageal Reflux. This is a GI condition where stomach acid travels up the esophagus and pharynx. Other possibilities include:
- Tonsillitis or throat infections
- Scarring or damage to the esophagus
- Medication side effects
- Tumors in the lungs, esophagus, or throat
- Nerve diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
What to Expect With Treatment
Your ENT specialist works with you to determine the cause of your dysphagia. Addressing the underlying condition can start a path to recovery.
In some cases the cause is unclear. Your ENT will do everything possible to determine what is behind your dysphagia. They will ask you about the history of this problem and examine your throat. They might recommend a swallow test or various types of laryngoscopy.