Swallowing difficulty, or dysphagia, refers to a medical condition where you find it difficult to move food from mouth to stomach.
Dysphagia is often a result of irritation or damage to the muscles and nerves that help you swallow food, a mechanical obstruction within the oesophagus, or external compression of the oesophagus. While this condition may be caused by something simple such as swallowing your food too fast, at other times, what causes difficulty in swallowing could be much more severe.
Swallowing difficulties are found more in adults than in children and are followed by symptoms such as:
- Inability to swallow food
- Feeling of food getting stuck in your throat or chest
- Hoarse voice
- Frequent heartburn
- Feeling food or stomach acid back up into your throat
- Unexpected weight loss
- Coughing or gagging when swallowing
What causes difficulty swallowing?
There are many causes that can lead to dysphagia.
Some of these reasons are the result of certain lifestyle practices and habits, while some can be due to underlying medical conditions.
This is a condition where a blockage in the oesophagus makes it difficult to swallow food, liquid, and saliva.
Oesophageal obstruction often happens as a result of a hard food item (such as meat with bone) getting stuck in the oesophagus. Other causes also include stricture, cancer, and other foreign body ingestion.
Obstructions can be caused by habits like swallowing food before chewing it properly. This can also occur when you don’t have enough teeth or strong enough teeth to swallow food properly.
Symptoms of oesophageal obstruction include:
- Chest pain
- Weight loss
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
GERD or acid reflux is when stomach acid comes back into the oesophagus and causes a burning feeling in the chest and upper abdomen. The inflammation caused due to GERD can lead to peptic stricture, which is a condition of abnormal tightening of the oesophagus that makes swallowing difficult.
While GERD can happen as a result of conditions such as hiatal hernia or pregnancy in women, there are also lifestyle habits that can trigger it.
Smoking, alcohol consumption, overconsumption of carbonated drinks, citrus fruits or spicy food, high coffee intake, and certain OTC medications might trigger acid reflux.
Symptoms of acid reflux include:
- Chest pain
- Chronic cough
- A feeling that something is stuck in your throat
Although your posture is not one of the main causes that can lead to swallowing difficulties, certain studies have associated poor posture with the worsening of problems such as cervicogenic dysphagia.
Specifically, the cervical instability of the neck caused by bad posture may lead to swallowing difficulties.
Poor posture and a lack of exercise often lead to neck pain, spinal dysfunction, joint degeneration, and back pain. Cervicogenic dysphagia may also happen due to the tightening of the neck muscles because of slouching or inactivity.
Poor oral hygiene
Oral health habits are as important as any other health practice. Not practising good oral hygiene habits is a cause of many problems in the mouth and the upper digestive tract.
Decayed or neglected teeth can lead to tooth loss and weakening of the jaw when left untreated. As a result, this can make eating, chewing, and swallowing much more difficult.
Certain childhood habits are also associated with swallowing problems at later ages. Sucking on thumbs or using pacifiers have been attributed to the development of ‘immature swallow’ habits.
Thumb sucking or letting babies use pacifiers for longer than recommended may prevent children from developing a retracted tongue posture for swallowing. As a result, they tend to follow the same tongue-pumping motion as suckling a breast or a bottle when swallowing food.
Other conditions that can cause swallowing problems
Among what causes difficulty in swallowing are also underlying medical conditions unrelated to your habits.
Impacts to the nervous system or neurological causes such as strokes, dementia or head injury may lead to difficulties in swallowing.
Congenital or development conditions such as cerebral palsy or cleft lip and palate are also two other conditions that may contribute to swallowing difficulties.
Dysphagia may also happen when the oesophagus narrows as a result of cancer in the oesophagus or the stomach.
Consult a specialist to find out what causes difficulty in swallowing
Swallowing difficulties could be a result or a symptom of an underlying medical condition. If the difficulty is persistent, the best solution is to consult a gastroenterologist and get an accurate diagnosis.
A specialist will evaluate and identify any underlying cause and prescribe the appropriate treatments for it.