Swallowing Problems

We do it every day, numerous times a day without thinking, but swallowing is actually a complex process requiring the coordination and cooperation of various nerves and muscles of both the throat and digestive tract.  When everything is working fine, swallowing is a smooth, seamless process we barely notice but when things go wrong, problems can range from bothersome to life-threatening.  Swallowing problems encompass a wide range of disorders that include the throat structures as well as the digestive tract and nervous system.

  • Frequent choking on foods and/or liquids
  • Pain with swallowing
  • Difficulty initiating a swallow (having to think about it)
  • Food getting stuck in the throat or esophagus (the tube that goes from the mouth to the stomach)
  • Frequent respiratory infections, an indication that food may be getting into the lungs

If swallowing difficulties are present, a great place to start is with your primary care provider.  Your primary care provider will take a thorough history of your symptoms, examine your throat and help  determine the possible source of your swallowing problems and what type of specialist you need to see for further care and treatment.  As an otolaryngology practice, we diagnosis and treat swallowing disorders that arise from abnormalities in the mouth and throat structures.  These types of swallowing difficulties are called oropharyngeal dysphagia (difficulty swallowing due to mouth and throat problems).

For those with suspected oropharyngeal dysphagia, an otolaryngologist such as Dr. Bailey will examine the mouth and throat with the aid of mirrors and often a small, flexible fiberoptic tube called a laryngoscope.   The scope is lubricated and gently passed through the nose and down the back of the throat into the larynx.  This helps visualize the structures of the deep throat to see if any nodules or other abnormal structures are interfering with the swallowing process.  Occasionally, food and liquid will be introduced while the scope is in place in order to see how the throat and tongue function during the actual swallowing process.  If further evaluation of the top part of the esophagus is needed, a TransNasal Esophagoscopy (TNE), may be carried out by Dr. Bailey.

Depending on the cause of the swallowing disorder, treatment may include speech therapy which helps with the neuromuscular function of the swallowing process.  Surgery will be considered if certain structures are interfering with swallowing.  Occasionally, medications may be prescribed to reduce swelling caused by acid reflux or allergies.  Most swallowing problems can be effectively treated once the diagnosis is discovered but complex cases may require the cooperation of a team of different specialists to restore proper functioning of the swallowing process and prevent against malnutrition and dehydration.