12 Causes of Difficulty Swallowing
Swallowing food or drink comes so naturally we rarely think about it until we’re having difficulty swallowing. Then, it can feel like food is stuck in your throat, it may make you cough or choke, and it can even cause pneumonia if food or liquids get into your lungs.
Difficulty swallowing is known as dysphagia – and if you’ve experienced it, you know how frightening it can be.
Sometimes, eating quickly or not chewing food well will cause difficulty swallowing. But experiencing it frequently can mean there’s an underlying medical reason. The problem can originate in three areas:
- Mouth (oral cavity dysphagia)
- Throat (oropharyngeal dysphagia)
- Esophagus (esophageal dysphagia)
There are many causes for difficulty swallowing, including neurological or muscular issues and blockages. Some are temporary and others are chronic.
12 Causes of Difficulty Swallowing
Here are some common – and some not-so-common – conditions that can lead to difficulty swallowing.
- Achalasia – When the muscle that lets food into the stomach doesn’t relax at the right time, food can come back up. Sometimes, muscles in the wall of the esophagus are also weak.
- Diffuse spasm – Muscles in the walls of the lower esophagus can spasm, usually after swallowing, causing poorly coordinated contractions in the esophagus.
- Foreign bodies – Food or any foreign substance can get stuck and partially block the throat or esophagus. This is more common in older adults with dentures and people who have difficulty chewing.
- Esophageal ring – A thin ring of tissue just above the stomach that’s narrower than the rest of the esophagus. It can be congenital (Schatzki’s ring) or due to scarring caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
- GERD – Acid that leaks into the esophagus can damage esophageal tissues, causing spasms, scarring, and narrowing of the lower esophagus.
- Eosinophilic esophagitis – An immune system disease where one type of white blood cell, eosinophils, builds up in the esophagus, causing inflammation or injury. It may be related to food allergies.
- Cancer and radiation therapy – Some cancers, and radiation treatment for those cancers, can cause inflammation and scarring in the esophagus.
- Scleroderma – A disease that causes scar-like hardening of tissues, scleroderma can weaken the muscle that keeps food in the stomach, allowing acid to back up into the esophagus.
- Neurological disorders – Multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s disease, and other neurological conditions may cause difficulty swallowing.
- Neurological damage – A stroke or injury to the brain and spinal cord can cause neurological damage that makes it difficult to swallow.
- Zenker’s diverticulum (pharyngoesophageal diverticulum) – This disorder causes a pouch of tissue to form in the throat where food can get stuck and cause difficulty swallowing. It can also cause excessive coughing, throat clearing, and bad breath.
- Hypothyroidism – An underactive thyroid gland can swell and put pressure on the esophagus, making it feel like there is food stuck in your throat.
Difficulty swallowing is most common in older adults but can affect people of any age. An occasional episode is nothing to worry about, but if you’re experiencing more than occasional difficulty swallowing or it’s happening with other symptoms, it’s essential to see your doctor.
If you are struggling with difficulty swallowing, don’t wait – schedule an appointment now!