Dysphagia is the medical term for having difficulty swallowing. This difficulty can present differently in patients—several types of dysphagia and myriad conditions contribute to its development. It may take more effort to swallow food for some, and food moves more slowly. In more severe cases of dysphagia, the patient cannot swallow at all and needs immediate medical attention. If the root cause of dysphagia isn’t treated, more serious complications can occur, such as aspiration pneumonia.
The symptoms of dysphagia are noticeable and can seriously affect quality of life. Some of the symptoms associated with dysphagia include:
These symptoms are similar to other GI disorders, and pain while swallowing can also be associated with conditions such as the common cold or streptococcal pharyngitis (strep throat). However, if your symptoms aren’t connected to another issue, and they persist for more than a day or two, you should contact your healthcare provider. If your dysphagia is accompanied by difficulty breathing, call emergency services immediately.
There are two main types of dysphagia and many subtypes. In order for your physician to be able to treat you, they need to know what type of dysphagia it is. The different types of dysphagia are:
Your gastroenterologist will ask about your symptoms, followed by a physical exam. In order to confirm a diagnosis of dysphagia, your physician may order diagnostic testing. Diagnostic testing for difficulty swallowing includes:
The treatment for dysphagia depends upon the root cause. If you have oropharyngeal dysphagia, your doctor may refer you to a swallowing therapist or a speech pathologist. The primary treatment for oropharyngeal dysphagia is therapy. This can include exercises to help you strengthen your swallowing muscles, or learning swallowing techniques, such as repositioning of the head or learning new ways to eat food. This is a standard treatment when dysphagia is caused by Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease.
There are many more treatment options for esophageal dysphagia. These include:
If you have difficulty swallowing for more than a day or so, or the dysphagia is so severe you have difficulty breathing or can’t swallow food at all, call your gastroenterologist immediately.
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