Dysphagia is the medical term for difficulty swallowing, or the feeling that
food is "sticking" in your throat or chest. The feeling is actually in your
esophagus, the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach. You may
experience dysphagia when swallowing solid foods, liquids, or both.
Oropharyngeal dysphagia involves difficulty moving food from your mouth into
your upper esophagus. Esophageal dysphagia involves difficulty moving food
through your esophagus to your stomach. Dysphagia can affect you at any age,
although the likelihood increases as you grow older.
Signs and Symptoms
The following are symptoms of oropharyngeal dysphagia.
Difficulty trying to swallow
Choking or breathing saliva into your lungs while
Coughing while swallowing
Regurgitating liquid through your nose
Breathing in food while swallowing
The following are symptoms of esophageal dysphagia.
Pressure sensation in your mid-chest area
Sensation of food stuck in your throat
Pain with swallowing
What Causes It?
Dysphagia in children is often due to malformations, conditions such as
cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Dysphagia in adults is often due to tumors (benign or cancerous), conditions
that cause the esophagus to narrow, neuromuscular conditions, or GERD. Other
causes include smoking, excessive alcohol use, certain medications, and teeth or
dentures in poor condition.
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
Your health care provider may ask about your symptoms and eating habits. For
infants and children, the health care provider may want to observe them eating.
Your provider may also listen to your heart, take your pulse, and will want to
know your medical history.
A variety of tests can be used for dysphagia.
In endoscopy or esophagoscopy, a tube is inserted into your esophagus
to help your provider evaluate the condition of your esophagus, and to try to
open any parts that might be closed off.
In esophageal manometry, a tube is inserted into your stomach to
measure pressure differences in various regions.
In endoscopic ultrasonography, ultrasound is used to evaluate the
condition of your esophagus.
X rays of your neck, chest, or abdomen may be taken.
In a barium swallow, moving picture or video X rays are taken of your
esophagus as you swallow barium, which is visible on an X
Dysphagia generally is treated with drugs, procedures that open up the
esophagus, or surgery. Your treatment will depend on the cause, the seriousness,
and any complications you may be experiencing. In most cases, you can be treated
without hospitalization as long as you are able to eat enough and have a low
risk of complications. If your esophagus is severely obstructed, however, you
may be hospitalized. Infants and children with dysphagia are often
Check manufacturers' profiles for possible drug interactions. Liquid forms of
medications may be necessary.
Nitrates: nitroglycerin, isosorbide
Anticholinergics: dicyclomine or hyoscyamine sulfate (do not take in
cases of urinary disease, glaucoma, myasthenia gravis)
Herbs can be effective at decreasing spasms and healing an inflamed
esophagus. Homeopathic remedies may be used at the same time.
Herbs may be used as dried extracts (capsules, powders, teas), glycerites
(glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts).
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra): reduces spasms and swelling and
is a pain reliever specifically for the gastrointestinal tract. Do not take
licorice for a long period of time or if you have high blood pressure. The dose
is 380 to 1,140 mg per day. Chewable lozenges may be the best form of licorice
for treating GERD.
Slippery elm (Ulmus fulva): demulcent (protects irritated
tissues and promotes their healing); dose is 60 to 320 mg per day. One tsp.
powder may be mixed with water and drunk three to four times a
In addition, a combination of four of the following herbs may be used as
either a tea or tincture. Use equal parts of the herbs, either 1 tsp. of each
per cup of water and steep 10 minutes three times a day, or equal parts of
tincture 30 to 60 drops three times a day.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis): improves digestion and helps
you relax, especially if you feel anxious or depressed
Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa): reduces spasms and swelling,
especially where there is fatigue
St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum): relieves pain,
Stoller JK, Ahmad M, Longworth DL eds. The Cleveland Clinic Intensive
Review of Internal Medicine. Baltimore, Md: Williams & Wilkins;
Review Date: August 1999
Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Robert A. Anderson, MD, President
, American Board of Holistic Medicine, East Wenatchee, WA; Lawrence J. Cheskin,
MD, FACP, Director, The Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, Lutherville, MD;
Lonnie Lee, MD, Internal Medicine, Silver Springs,
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otherwise. No warranty, expressed or implied, is made in regard to the contents
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guide to self-medication. The reader is advised to discuss the information
provided here with a doctor, pharmacist, nurse, or other authorized healthcare
practitioner and to check product information (including package inserts)
regarding dosage, precautions, warnings, interactions, and contraindications
before administering any drug, herb, or supplement discussed