Swallowing problems may result in accumulation of solids or liquids in the throat that may complicate or feel like post nasal drip. When the nerve and muscle interaction in the mouth, throat, and food passage (esophagus) aren’t working properly, overflow secretions can spill into the voice box (larynx) and breathing passages (trachea and bronchi) causing hoarseness, throat clearing, or cough.
Factors that Contribute to Swallowing Problems:
- With age, swallowing muscles often lose strength and coordination. Thus, even normal secretions may not pass smoothly into the stomach.
- During sleep, swallowing occurs much less frequently, and secretions may gather. Coughing and vigorous throat clearing are often needed when awakening.
- When nervous or under stress, throat muscles can trigger spasms that feel like a lump in the throat. Frequent throat clearing, which usually produces little or no mucus, can make the problem worse by increasing irritation.
- Growths or swelling in the food passage can slow or prevent the movement of liquids and/or solids.
Swallowing problems may be caused also by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This is a return of stomach contents and acid into the esophagus or throat. Heartburn, indigestion, and sore throat are common symptoms. GERD may be aggravated by lying down especially following eating. Hiatal hernia, a pouch-like tissue mass where the esophagus meets the stomach, often contributes to the reflux.
Difficulty in swallowing (dysphagia) is common among all age groups, especially the elderly. The term dysphagia refers to the feeling of difficulty passing food or liquid from the mouth to the stomach. This may be caused by many factors, most of which are not threatening and temporary. Difficulties in swallowing rarely represent a more serious disease, such as a tumor or a progressive neurological disorder. When the difficulty does not clear up by itself, in a short period of time, you should see an otolaryngologist–head and neck surgeon.
How you swallow
People normally swallow hundreds of times a day to eat solids, drink liquids, and swallow the normal saliva and mucus that the body produces. The process of swallowing has four stages:
- The first is oral preparation, where food or liquid is manipulated and chewed in preparation for swallowing.
- During the oral stage, the tongue propels the food or liquid to the back of the mouth, starting the swallowing response.
- The pharyngeal stage begins as food or liquid is quickly passed through the pharynx (the canal that connects the mouth with the esophagus) into the esophagus or swallowing tube.
- In the final, esophageal stage, the food or liquid passes through the esophagus into the stomach.
Although the first and second stages have some voluntary control, stages three and four occur by themselves, without conscious input.
What causes swallowing disorders?
Any interruption in the swallowing process can cause difficulties. It may be due to simple causes such as poor teeth, ill fitting dentures, or a common cold. One of the most common causes of dysphagia is gastroesophageal reflux. This occurs when stomach acid moves up the esophagus to the pharynx, causing discomfort. Other causes may include: stroke; progressive neurologic disorder; the presence of a tracheostomy tube; a paralyzed or unmoving vocal cord; a tumor in the mouth, throat, or esophagus; or surgery in the head, neck, or esophageal areas.
Symptoms of swallowing disorders may include:
- a feeling that food or liquid is sticking in the throat,
- discomfort in the throat or chest (when gastroesophageal reflux is present),
- a sensation of a foreign body or “lump” in the throat,
- weight loss and inadequate nutrition due to prolonged or more significant problems with swallowing, and
- coughing or choking caused by bits of food, liquid, or saliva not passing easily during swallowing, and being sucked into the lungs.
Who evaluates and treats swallowing disorders?
When dysphagia is persistent and the cause is not apparent, the otolaryngologist–head and neck surgeon will discuss the history of your problem and examine your mouth and throat. This may be done with the aid of mirrors or a small tube (flexible laryngoscope), which provides vision of the back of the tongue, throat, and larynx (voice box). If necessary, an examination of the esophagus, stomach, and upper small intestine (duodenum) may be carried out by the otolaryngologist or a gastroenterologist. These specialists may recommend X-rays of the swallowing mechanism, called a barium swallow or upper G-I, which is done by a radiologist.
If special problems exist, a speech pathologist may consult with the radiologist regarding a modified barium swallow or videofluroscopy. These help to identify all four stages of the swallowing process. Using different consistencies of food and liquid, and having the patient swallow in various positions, a speech pathologist will test the ability to swallow. An exam by a neurologist may be necessary if the swallowing disorder stems from the nervous system, perhaps due to stroke or other neurologic disorders.
Many of these disorders can be treated with medication. Drugs that slow stomach acid production, muscle relaxants, and antacids are a few of the many medicines available. Treatment is tailored to the particular cause of the swallowing disorder.