Dysphagia refers to difficulty swallowing, such as due to pain or increased effort. Dysphagia is classified based on whether there is a muscular, nerve, or structural problem. These could be due to trauma, neuromuscular disorders, hardening or tightening of skin and connective tissue, or swelling of nearby structures. Other structural problems include obstruction of the throat or esophagus. Functional dysphagia occurs when patients have trouble swallowing with no clear cause.
About 15 million Americans are affected by dysphagia, with about 1 million new diagnoses each year. About half of all Americans over the age of 60 will experience dysphagia. In addition to the causes described above, health conditions such as stroke, degenerative neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s Disease or ALS, and cancer of the head and neck can all cause dysphagia.
Not all affected individuals will recognize that they have dysphagia. Dysphagia is important to diagnose because it increases the risk of pneumonia due to the introduction of food, saliva, and nasal secretions to the airway. Additionally, dysphagia may lead to dehydration, malnutrition, and kidney failure. Symptoms of dysphagia include an inability to control food or saliva in the mouth, coughing, choking, difficulty starting to swallow, recurrent pneumonia, weight loss, wet voice after swallowing, and nasal regurgitation. In severe cases, individuals may be unable to swallow solid food and there may be pain when trying to swallow.
Treatments for dysphagia include surgery, medication, and feeding tubes. In addition, lifestyle changes such as regular exercise and diet modification may be suggested. If you are suffering from dysphagia, talk to your doctor about the most current treatment options.