Having trouble swallowing can cause distress, whether from the frustration of not being able to eat and drink smoothly, or from choking or painful sensations. The medical name for a swallowing difficulty is dysphagia. Commonly, difficulty swallowing may occur when eating too quickly and food is not thoroughly chewed. However, persistent dysphagia may be a sign of a serious medical condition which requires treatment.
Experiencing recurring or ongoing swallowing difficulties could be a sign of some cancers such as esophageal cancer or stomach cancer. The tumour may block or narrow the food passage. It is best to see a doctor immediately to rule out the causes.
What causes swallowing difficulty?
There are muscles and nerves that help the body move food through the throat and esophagus. Swallowing difficulty may occur when these muscles and nerves are not working right. In other cases, swallowing difficulty may be caused by a physical obstruction, or pain during swallowing. Some conditions that cause dysphagia include:
- Acid reflux and GERD: When stomach acid flows up from the stomach back into the esophagus, it can cause symptoms such as heartburn, stomach pain, ulcers, and difficulty swallowing. Having symptoms of acid reflux more than twice a week might be a sign of a condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
- Esophageal cancer: Esophageal cancer can happen when a malignant tumour develops in the lining of the esophageal. The deep tissues and muscles of the esophageal can be affected as the tumour grows. During the early stages of esophageal cancer, a person may not experience any symptoms. But as the cancer progresses, some may experience symptoms such as vomiting, heartburn, chronic cough, pain or difficulty swallowing, and food coming back up the esophagus.
- Stomach cancer: Stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer, is characterised by a growth of cancerous cells within the lining of the stomach. This type of cancer can be difficult to diagnose as people typically don’t show any symptoms during the early stages. Some of the most common symptoms of stomach cancer are nausea and vomiting, bloody stools, stomach pain, and difficulty swallowing.
When should I see a doctor for swallowing difficulty?
Encountering difficulty swallowing once in a while with no other symptoms is usually not a cause for worry. But you should get it checked out if dysphagia is repeated or prolonged, especially if accompanied by other symptoms, such as drooling, unexpected weight loss, heartburn, and coughing. Dysphagia that results in a person avoiding eating, skipping meals, losing weight or becoming malnourished is also reason to be concerned.
If you are having trouble breathing or think there might be something stuck in your throat, call a doctor immediately.
It is important to consult a doctor to determine the cause of your swallowing difficulty. Talk to your doctor about the symptoms you have and when they began. They will do a physical exam to check for any abnormalities or swelling in your oral cavity. There are a variety of tests they can perform to find the exact cause. Some tests include:
- Barium X-ray: Use of X-ray to examine the gastrointestinal system
- Endoscopy: A small camera attached to a long, thin, tube is inserted through the mouth to examine the throat, esophagus, stomach, and part of the small intestine
- Manometry: A tube is inserted through the nose into the esophagus, which detects the pressure and strength of the esophageal muscles
It pays to be vigilant about your own health and any abnormalities. If a severe condition is the cause of your swallowing difficulty, getting treatment early is key. Your doctor can provide you with medication or recommend you the suitable treatments you need, such as surgery or chemotherapy.