Understanding Dysphagia: What You Should Know

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Dysphagia is a medical condition that affects a person’s ability to swallow food and liquids properly. If left unmanaged, this often-underestimated disorder can lead to a range of health complications and a reduced quality of life.

This article will look into the different factors of dysphagia, from its causes and symptoms, to diagnosis, treatment, and lifestyle adjustments.

What Is Dysphagia?

Dysphagia is a term used to describe the difficulty or discomfort a person experiences when swallowing. It can affect people of all ages, from infants to the elderly, and can result from various underlying medical conditions.

Causes of Dysphagia

Dysphagia can have multiple causes, including:

Neurological Conditions: conditions like a stroke, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) can weaken the muscles involved in swallowing.

Structural Abnormalities: narrowing or blockages in the esophagus due to conditions like esophageal cancer, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or esophageal strictures can hinder the passage of food and liquids.

Muscle Disorders: disorders that affect the muscles responsible for swallowing, such as myasthenia gravis or muscular dystrophy, can lead to dysphagia.

Aging: as people age, the muscles involved in swallowing may weaken, increasing the risk of dysphagia.

Infections and Inflammation: infections like thrush or conditions like eosinophilic esophagitis can cause inflammation and narrowing of the esophagus, making swallowing difficult.

Surgery or Radiation Therapy: head and neck cancer treatments can damage the muscles and structures involved in swallowing.

Symptoms of Dysphagia

The symptoms of dysphagia can vary depending on the underlying cause and severity, but may include:

Pain or discomfort when swallowing: a burning sensation or feeling that food is getting stuck in the throat or chest.

Drooling: difficulty in controlling saliva, leading to excessive drooling.

Coughing or choking: especially during or after eating or drinking.

Regurgitation: food or liquids coming back up after swallowing.

Unexpected weight loss: difficulty eating can lead to a decrease in calorie intake and subsequent weight loss.

Voice changes: hoarseness or changes in voice pitch.

Recurrent pneumonia: aspiration of food or liquids into the lungs can lead to pneumonia.

Diagnosis of Dysphagia

If you suspect that you or a loved one has dysphagia, seeking medical evaluation is essential. Diagnosis typically involves:

Medical History: your healthcare provider will inquire about your symptoms, medical history, and any underlying conditions that may contribute to dysphagia.

Physical Examination: a physical examination may be conducted to assess muscle strength and any visible abnormalities.

Imaging Tests: imaging tests such as barium swallow (fluoroscopy) or video endoscopy may be performed to visualize the swallowing process and identify any structural or functional abnormalities.

Manometry: esophageal manometry measures the pressure in the esophagus and the coordination of its muscles during swallowing.

Endoscopy: an endoscopic examination may be used to directly visualize the esophagus and assess for any issues.

Biopsy: in cases where cancer is suspected, a biopsy may be taken to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment Options for Dysphagia

The treatment of dysphagia depends on its underlying cause and severity:

Dietary Modifications: in mild cases, dietary changes may be sufficient. This can include altering the texture of food, such as pureeing or using thickening liquids like Simply Thick EasyMix to make swallowing easier.

Swallowing Therapy: speech-language pathologists can provide exercises and techniques to improve swallowing coordination and muscle strength.

Medications: in cases related to conditions like GERD or esophagitis, medications can help reduce inflammation and improve symptoms.

Dilation: for structural issues like strictures or narrowing of the esophagus, a procedure called dilation can be performed to widen the passage.

Surgery: in severe cases, surgical interventions may be necessary to correct structural abnormalities or remove blockages.

Feeding Tubes: in cases where swallowing is severely impaired, feeding tubes may be recommended to ensure adequate nutrition.

Lifestyle Adjustments

In addition to medical treatment, individuals with dysphagia can make lifestyle adjustments to manage their condition effectively:

Eating Mindfully: taking your time during meals, chewing food thoroughly, and avoiding distractions can help reduce the risk of choking.

Posture: sitting upright while eating and drinking can promote better swallowing.

Smaller, Frequent Meals: consuming smaller, more frequent meals can make swallowing easier and prevent fatigue.

Hydration: staying adequately hydrated is essential. Consult with a healthcare provider to determine the appropriate consistency of liquids.

Medication Management: ensure that medications are well tolerated and don’t exacerbate swallowing difficulties.

Support: seek support from speech therapists, support groups, or counseling services to cope with dysphagia’s emotional and psychological aspects.

Complications of Dysphagia

If left unmanaged, dysphagia can lead to several complications, including:

Malnutrition: difficulty eating can result in inadequate nutrition, leading to malnutrition and weight loss.

Dehydration: swallowing difficulties may extend to managing fluids, increasing the risk of dehydration.

Aspiration Pneumonia: food or liquids entering the airway can cause recurrent pneumonia.

Reduced Quality of Life: dysphagia can impact a person’s social life and overall well-being due to dietary restrictions and the risk of choking.


Dysphagia is a medical condition that warrants prompt attention and appropriate management. Understanding its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options is essential for individuals affected by dysphagia and their caregivers. 

With early diagnosis and comprehensive care, many individuals with dysphagia can effectively manage their condition and improve their quality of life. Seeking medical guidance and adopting necessary lifestyle adjustments are crucial steps toward living well with dysphagia.

About the Author

Jared Levenson is a former binge eating wrestler turned Zen Buddhist Monk, Internal Family Systems counselor and nutrition wellness coach. He's helped hundreds of people through universal meal principles and internal family systems to make peace with food, stop binge eating, and find true health and wholeness.


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