The swallowing reflex enables food or liquids to pass from the mouth to the esophagus via the pharynx. It’s an automatic action that is interrupted once in a while when the food or liquid enters the trachea instead, leading to choking and the sensation that the swallowed item “went down the wrong pipe.” This happens to us all on occasion. Chronic swallowing conditions, on the other hand, signal a more serious problem. The medical term for swallowing difficulty is dysphagia.
How Swallowing Works
Normally when eating, foods and liquids pass from the mouth to the stomach as a result of muscle contractions in the throat and esophagus. A blockage in the throat or esophagus, or incorrectly functioning muscles and nerves, can disrupt this process, causing food or liquids to become lodged in your throat or sternum. The result is painful, difficult swallowing often accompanied by choking, gagging, drooling, regurgitation, hoarseness, sore throat, chest pain, and acid reflux.
Conditions that can cause weakening of the throat and esophageal muscles include nervous system disorders such as multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and Parkinson’s disease; neurological damage following a stroke, brain, or spinal cord injury; diverticula; scleroderma; gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD); diffuse spasm; foreign objects in the throat; and cancer.
If you are experiencing ongoing swallowing difficulties, schedule an evaluation with an ENT specialist as soon as possible in order to rule out a serious disease. In addition to a physical exam and review of your symptoms, you may be given special tests like x-rays, laryngoscopy, barium swallow study, or fluoroscopy.
Treatment varies depending on the cause, and may include drugs, surgery, and swallowing exercises, in addition to lifestyle changes geared toward changing your eating habits. In severe cases, use of a feeding tube may be necessary to ensure proper nutrition and hydration.