Woman drinking water struggling with dysphagia, or, difficulty swallowing.


Are you having trouble swallowing? Is it taking more time and effort to move food or liquid from your mouth to your stomach? While it’s normal to experience occasional difficulty swallowing, if the problem persists, it can indicate a serious medical condition. The medical term for difficulty in swallowing is Dysphagia. 

What is Dysphagia? 

Dysphagia, or difficulty with swallowing, is a little-known and often neglected medical disorder. In some cases, people are completely unable to swallow or may have trouble safely swallowing liquids, foods, or saliva, which makes eating and consuming adequate calories and fluids a challenge.


While it seems second nature, swallowing is actually a complex process. It takes three stages, numerous muscles and many nerves to receive food into the mouth, prepare it, and move it from the mouth to the stomach. Essentially, Dysphagia occurs when there is a problem with the neural control or the structures involved in any part of the swallowing process.


While dysphagia can occur at any age, it is more common in older adults. According to the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (AHCPR), more than 60,000 Americans die from complications associated with swallowing dysfunctions, with aspiration pneumonia being the most common. This occurs when food or saliva goes down the wrong pipe. The causes and symptoms of swallowing problems vary, and treatment depends on the cause.

Causes of Dysphagia

Any condition that interferes with the swallowing process can cause Dysphagia. Aging and certain neurological or nervous system disorders are considered risk factors, as well. Some common conditions that cause Dysphagia and trouble swallowing include: 

  • Heartburn
  • Epiglottitis
  • Goiter
  • Esophagitis
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Stomach cancer (gastric adenocarcinoma)
  • Herpes esophagitis
  • Recurrent herpes simplex labialis
  • Thyroid nodule
  • Infectious mononucleosis (Mono)
  • Snake bites

Symptoms of Dysphagia

According to Mayo Clinic, the symptoms associated with Dysphagia include:

  • Pain while swallowing
  • Inability to swallow
  • The sensation of food getting stuck in your throat or chest or behind your breastbone 
  • Drooling
  • Being hoarse
  • Bringing food back up (regurgitation)
  • Frequent heartburn
  • Food or stomach acid back up into your throat
  • Unexpected weight loss 
  • Coughing or gagging when swallowing
  • Avoiding certain foods because of trouble swallowing

Types of Dysphagia

Swallowing difficulty can be broken down into two categories: oropharyngeal and esophageal. Oropharyngeal involves the mouth and pharynx and is caused by disorders of the nerves and muscles in the throat. Esophageal dysphagia is characterized by the feeling that something is stuck in your throat, which can be caused by spasms or tightness in the lower esophagus, 

foreign bodies, swelling or narrowing, or scar tissue. 

When to see a doctor

These swallowing difficulties can result in malnutrition and dehydration as well as recurring respiratory infections and aspiration pneumonia. These complications are serious and can be life-threatening. 


If you continue to have difficulty swallowing, make an appointment to see a doctor. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms and when they began. Your doctor will be able to conduct a physical examination and look into your oral cavity to check for abnormalities or swelling. 

Treatments for Dysphagia 

Based on the cause of your swallowing trouble, your doctor will determine a treatment. If you’re experiencing oropharyngeal dysphagia, your doctor may refer you to a speech or swallowing therapist. Treatment approaches for esophageal dysphagia may include esophageal dilation, surgery or medication. Dietary changes may also be recommended for both types of Dysphagia. 


The doctors at Medical West can help determine the cause of your swallowing difficulty and appropriate treatment. 


Learn more about Dysphagie at Medical West

Call 205-996-WEST to schedule an appointment for an evaluation with a Medical West provider. We are here to serve the communities of Hoover, Bessemer, McCalla, and Vance, and more!