“Oh, it’s nothing,” many people may think when a bite of food gets stuck in their throats. But if food is sticking in there frequently, they may have something more serious to chew on than a simple eating “hiccup.”
We tend to think of swallowing as automatic; that it’s something our bodies just do. But in fact, this act relies on a highly coordinated collaboration involving the brain, esophagus, several nerves, and a couple of muscular valves. If one of these players is out of step, or something goes wrong to interfere with its role, food can take a lot longer to travel through the esophagus to the stomach – or feel like it’s stuck in the throat.
This disorder is called dysphagia. And about 10 million Americans are evaluated for it each year.
Dysphagia does not exist in a vacuum; it is typically the result of a separate, underlying health issue. And some of these issues, if left untreated, could get serious.
Swallowing Problems Can Result from Unexpected Illnesses
Patients who feel like food is getting caught or slowed down in their throats should take it as a sign from their bodies to see a doctor. Dysphagia could be the result of one of these more urgent ailments:
Esophageal inflammation (esophagitis). Esophagitis is an inflammation that may damage the tissues of the esophagus, the tube that carries food to the stomach from the mouth. One cause is chronic acid reflux (GERD), the persistent, forced return of stomach contents, including acids, into the esophagus. Another form of esophagitis – eosinophilic esophagitis – is an immune disorder in which certain white blood cells build up in the esophagus and injure or inflame the tissue. Eosinophilic esophagitis is associated with food and environmental allergies.
Recurring pneumonia. Pneumonia – a lung inflammation caused by viral or bacterial infection – may be a sign that food is entering the lungs, rather than the esophagus, due to esophageal narrowing or swelling.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). ALS is a condition marked by progressive muscle weakness and atrophy. Nearly 85% of those who live with ALS experience swallowing problems, and while usually it occurs in later stages of ALS, dysphagia can be an early sign of bulbar onset ALS, which attacks the neurons that control muscles in the head and neck.
Parkinson’s disease. Due to the gradual nature of Parkinson’s, a progressive disease of the nervous system, many may think swallowing difficulties are a later-stage symptom. However, dysphagia can occur at any stage of Parkinson’s. Detecting it early can aid in intervention and quality of life.
Multiple sclerosis (MS). MS occurs when the immune system attacks the protective covering of nerve fibers, causing communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body. As with Parkinson’s disease, dysphagia is more frequent in advanced cases of MS, but it can be an early symptom.
Respect What Your Body is Saying
If you or a loved one is experiencing trouble swallowing, don’t take it as a minor “hiccup.” Call us. Cincinnati GI specializes in several treatments for dysphagia, including medications, the gentle expansion of the esophagus, and surgery.
Symptoms of dysphagia may include:
Pain when swallowing.
Repeatedly choking or gagging when swallowing.
A delay in the passage of food that lasts more than a few seconds.
A sensation that food is stuck in the throat or chest.
To learn more about swallowing disorders, including the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatments, visit our web page dedicated to the condition,here.