Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulty swallowing, or the sensation that food is stuck in the throat or chest. It usually indicates an inability of the esophagus to properly move food from the mouth to the stomach. It can affect people of all ages, but is most commonly associated with the elderly.

Signs & Symptoms

When we swallow, food or liquid is carried from the mouth through the pharynx and esophagus into the stomach, where it is digested. This is a mostly involuntary process, one that requires little thought. But when something goes wrong, food or liquid can become stuck or lodged in the throat, chest, or sternum. Swallowing becomes painful or difficult, and may be accompanied by choking, coughing, gagging, drooling, regurgitation, or hoarseness. Other symptoms might include chest pain, heartburn, belching, sore throat, and weight loss.

A number of conditions can cause dysphagia. Children may suffer from congenital defects or physical deformations, or conditions like cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy. In adults, neuromuscular disorders, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), stroke, smoking, alcohol, and poor teeth can all lead to swallowing difficulties.

Treatment & Prevention

How a swallowing disorder is treated depends on the cause, and typically involves medications, swallowing exercises, or surgery. Lifestyle changes often work in patients whose dysphagia results from GERD; avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and spicy foods, and eating smaller, more frequent meals may be enough to prevent acid reflux and the resultant swallowing difficulties from occurring.