February 01, 2018

Swallowing difficulty

Steps for safe, comfortable eating

Swallowing difficulty

Whether it's taking a drink or a bite of food, you probably don't think much about the basic function that comes next — swallowing. When all is working right, the process of swallowing involves about 50 pairs of muscles and nerves all working in coordination to move what's in your mouth to your stomach.

A wide range of problems can cause swallowing difficulty (dysphagia). It may be difficult to initiate a swallow, or swallowed items may feel like they get hung up about halfway down to the stomach.

Normal changes with aging — such as dry mouth, the loss of some muscle strength and the coordination needed to swallow — may reduce swallowing efficiency, but age alone doesn't cause swallowing problems. In addition, occasional swallowing difficulty isn't necessarily a cause for concern. It may be just a problem of eating too fast or inadequate chewing.

However, persistent swallowing difficulty signals the need for a prompt doctor's evaluation. The problem could be due to a serious medical condition. Improper swallowing itself can lead to medical problems such as pneumonia or malnutrition.

Down the hatch

When you're ready to swallow — whether it's a liquid, chewed food or a pill — your tongue triggers the swallow reflex by pushing everything to the back of your throat (pharynx) and into the top of the tube (esophagus) that connects to your stomach. At the same time, this reflex prevents what's being swallowed from entering your windpipe and lungs by covering the opening of...