Dysphagia Symptoms & Treatment

Dysphagia (dis-FAY-juh), or difficulty swallowing, affects millions of adults every year.

dysphagia speech pathologist
Jen discussing dysphagia with a patient

Normal Swallowing

Swallowing is something that most of us never think about as we effortlessly swallow 2000 times a day.  However swallowing is actually a very complex, intricate activity that involves over 50 muscles, 6 cranial nerves, both sides of the brain and the brainstem.

The swallow system is divided into different stages: the oral stage, pharyngeal stage (throat), and esophageal stage (below the throat to the stomach).  During the oral stage the food is chewed and formed into a cohesive ball (call a “bolus”) that is pushed to the back of the throat to be swallowed.  The oral stage involves a great deal of coordination to form and control the bolus so that food or drink does not spill from the lips or to the back of the throat or remain in the mouth after the swallow.  Patients who have oral dysphagia may choke on food or drink spilling into the open airway before the swallow or they may have to avoid foods that are challenging for them to chew and move in their mouth.

During the pharyngeal stage, the food and liquid is moved down through the pharynx (throat) while the trachea (airway) is closed off to prevent food or liquid from entering the lungs (called “aspiration”).  The pharyngeal stage requires speed, coordination, and strength of the muscles to quickly close off the airway and adequately squeeze the bolus toward the stomach.  Patients with pharyngeal dysphagia may aspirate and choke during the swallow if the airway is not adequately protected or choke on any food that is still in throat after the swallow.

After food and liquid has left the throat, it enters the esophagus to move to the stomach.  The esophagus squeezes food and liquid down to the stomach while trying to prevent stomach acid (reflux) from coming back.  The most common symptoms of esophageal dysphagia are heartburn or food getting stuck at a level below the throat.


Common Signs and Symptoms of Dysphagia:

  • Coughing/throat clearing during meals
  • Inability or difficulty swallowing certain foods or liquids
  • Feeling of food being stuck after swallowing
  • Wet sounding voice after swallowing
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Recurrent pneumonia

Common causes of dysphagia:

  • Stroke
  • Traumatic head or spinal cord injuries
  • Meningitis
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Head, neck and esophageal cancer
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Brain tumors
  • Polymyositis
  • Myasthenia Gravis
  • General weakness following an illness
If you have dysphagia, you may experience a variety of symptoms, such as frequent coughing or choking when you try to eat or drink your favorite foods and beverages. You may even have to thicken your liquids or grind your food, which is inconvenient and distasteful. If your difficulty swallowing is severe, you might even be relying on a feeding tube for nutrition and hydration. 

Fortunately, many patients with dysphagia have the potential to improve with the right treatment.  The most advanced therapies for dysphagia are available at the Carter Swallowing Center in Denver.

If you or a loved one has difficulty swallowing foods or liquids, we can help. Read more about treatment for dysphagia and what to expect during dysphagia treatment.

Call 720-880-6232 to schedule an appointment or to learn more about the treatments available.


Related Blog Posts:

2012: Providing Dysphagia Education for Patients and Clinicians

Hot Topics in Dysphagia Research

Dysphagia Documentary Now on YouTube

Reflux and Difficulty Swallowing

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