From time to time, it’s natural to cough or choke when your food lands in the wrong pipe by accident. But, while it is normal to experience blockage in your throat now and then, constant difficulty in swallowing is a tell-tale sign that your digestive system is not working as well as it should. Read on to understand more about the various causes of this condition and when you should see a specialist.
Should I be worried if I experience difficulty in swallowing?
If you have been experiencing persistent difficulty swallowing, you could be suffering from a swallowing disorder known as dysphagia. Dysphagia can be caused by the weakening of muscles involved in the process of swallowing, typically the muscles in your throat or oesophagus.
From the moment your mouth receives food to getting this food into your stomach, you may be surprised to learn that over fifty pairs of muscles and nerves have to work together for you to swallow your food! This process is complicated and requires the coordination of multiple muscles, especially for the food to pass through your throat and oesophagus.
What are the signs of dysphagia?
The common signs of dysphagia are choking and coughing. Patients with dysphagia often report discomfort and feelings of food being trapped in their throat or chest level. Weight loss is also a sign of dysphagia as patients cannot digest enough food for the body.
Dysphagia is common among older adults whose nerves and muscles have weakened with age. Patients with nervous system disorders are also at risk of contracting dysphagia.
What causes dysphagia?
Dysphagia typically has two main causes. The first cause is that the muscles and nerves in your throat and oesophagus may not be functioning properly. There is lack of coordination of the muscles in moving the food from your throat, through the esophagus and into the stomach.
Sometimes it may be caused by oesophagal spasms. This means that your oesophagus muscles may suddenly tighten during swallowing, preventing food from reaching the stomach and resulting in food being ‘stuck’ mid-swallow. Oesophagal spasms are minor and do not pose much concern, but if it frequently occurs, it may be a sign that you are suffering from underlying nervous system issues. Your nervous system transmits signals from your brain to the rest of your body, to successfully coordinate various muscles and actions. Therefore, if your oesophageal muscles are not functioning well, it may be a sign to examine your body’s nervous system.
The second common cause of dysphagia is the obstruction or narrowing of the oesophagus. If there has been an abnormal growth in the oesophagus, it obstructs the passageway for your food to travel to the stomach. In this case, difficulty in swallowing is progressive – it becomes more challenging to swallow solid food and then liquids as the tumour grows larger.
Furthermore, even when the tumour has been removed and the patient has recovered from cancer, swallowing can still be difficult. This is because radiotherapy and chemotherapy can lead to a dry mouth with ulcers, posing issues to swallowing. Besides that, radiotherapy or surgery to the neck and head regions can also weaken the muscles needed for swallowing.
What will the doctor do to diagnose my dysphagia?
It’s best to consult a specialist when your difficulty in swallowing is persistent. Seeking a gastroenterologist would be best as they are specialists in analysing and treating problems related to the digestive system; able to recommend the most appropriate cause of action for your diagnosis. The doctor may perform a series of tests such as an X-ray of your chest, a manometry (placing a tube down your oesophagus to measure the pressure in the esophagus as you swallow).
Swallowing difficulty caused by oesophageal obstruction or narrowing is usually identified with an upper endoscopy. An endoscopy helps the doctor investigate the cause of stomach pain symptoms or other signs causing a patient to have digestive issues. In the case of suspected dysphagia, the endoscopy can examine your symptoms of persistent choking and coughing. A long, thin and flexible tube is inserted directly into the body during an endoscopy, with a tiny camera and light source attached to its end. It allows your doctor to observe the surrounding tissues in your oesophagus, stomach and upper intestines.
If you have been scheduled for an endoscopy, it’s recommended to fast six hours before your scheduled appointment. An empty stomach is needed to perform an endoscopy safely, and you should also schedule safe transport back home as the sedative effects can last hours after the procedure.
Difficulty in swallowing may pose issues to your daily life as you might feel frustrated or even embarrassed when eating in a social setting. More importantly, it is crucial to consult a doctor immediately to identify the reasons behind your dysphagia and prevent any further complications. With adequate help and treatment, you can manage dysphagia safely and successfully.