Difficulty Swallowing

Is Having Difficulty Swallowing a Medical Condition?

In medical terms, having difficulty swallowing is referred to as dysphagia and is most often a symptom of GERD, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease or acid reflux disease. Dysphagia affects your esophagus, the tubular organ that carries food content from your mouth to your stomach. It may cause pain, tightness or a sticky feeling in your throat and chest. Some patients also complain of trouble breathing.

If you’re having trouble getting food from your mouth into the upper part of your esophagus, then you have what medical professionals would call oropharyngeal dysphagia. You may find that swallowing makes you choke, cough or regurgitate content through your nose. Food might also travel down your respiratory or air pipes while you are trying to eat.

If food gets into your esophagus easily enough but then struggles to move down into the stomach, then you may have esophageal dysphagia. This condition is much more common among dysphagia patients. Symptoms include heartburn and other uncomfortable feelings in your chest around meal times, a sore throat and frequent gassiness or belching.

What Causes Dysphagia?

Among young children, dysphagia is often caused by birth defects that make it physically difficult for the children to swallow. These defects include GERD, the most common cause of dysphagia among adults and children alike. GERD occurs when acid or other content from your stomach travels upward into your esophagus as a result of improper muscular function. There is a muscle at the bottom of your esophagus called the lower esophageal sphincter that is supposed to close and prevent this leakage, but if you have GERD, your sphincters are weak and fail to close completely after you eat. In addition to causing making it difficult to swallow, GERD may also cause some of the symptoms of esophageal dysphagia, such as heartburn and gassiness. In older patients, tumors (sometimes cancerous) in the throat can also make it difficult to swallow—although these medical conditions are much rarer in the United States than GERD.  There are rare disorders known as esophageal motility disorders which can cause difficulty in swallowing; these conditions include achalasia, and esophageal spasm.  Finally, dysphagia may result from development of rings or webs in the esophagus which can be symptoms of chronic reflux or iron deficiency anemia. 

Why Should I Contact a GI Doctor about Difficulty Swallowing?

Your GI doctor can help you treat dysphagia and make it easier for you to eat and swallow with many different methods, depending on the level of seriousness and any complications associated with your specific case. Typically, going to the hospital is unnecessary unless it becomes very difficult to breathe suddenly or if you’re so unable to eat that you’ve lost a significant amount of healthy weight.  If you have eaten a piece of food that has gotten stuck in your esophagus and isn’t clearing, you should go to an ER immediately to have it evaluated. Children are also frequently hospitalized for dysphagia as a precaution.

Possible treatment options include physical therapy to exercise your throat muscles, therapeutic endoscopy to dilate your throat using a balloon or medications to ease the symptoms of GERD and regulate acid production in your stomach. Surgery is only necessary to remove tumors in dysphagia patients. Contact a GI doctor for a consultation if you have trouble swallowing.


Reviewed 12/29/2011 by David M. Nolan, M.D.
Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, 2011
Currently a Fellow of Gastroenterology, at UCI 2011-2014