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Swallowing difficulties


Shelly Lanham, Speech-Language Pathologist

Question: I’m having some trouble swallowing? What could this mean?

Answer: Human beings swallow approximately 600 hundred times each day. It’s a function that most of us take for granted, that is until there is a problem. Swallowing disorders, also called dysphagia, can pose a serious threat to one’s health.  

Swallowing involves a complex series of voluntary and involuntary neuromuscular contractions that help us protect our airway and move food from our mouths to our stomachs. Each swallow consists of three phases: the oral (mouth), pharyngeal (throat), and esophageal (food tube) and each phase serves a specific purpose. If any part is not performing properly, it can cause dysphagia.

Some signs and symptoms of dysphagia include:

  • Coughing or choking with swallowing
  • Difficulty in initiating swallowing
  • Food sticking in the throat
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Change in eating habits
  • Recurrent pneumonias
  • Change in voice or speech (wet voice)
  • Nasal regurgitation

Dysphagia mostly occurs in older adults, premature babies, and people with problems of the brain or nervous system.

If you are having problems swallowing, contact your doctor. He or she can write you an order to see a speech language pathologist. These professionals are trained to identify and treat swallowing disorders.

Generally, the speech language pathologist will review your health history including any long-term illnesses and medications you may be taking.  They will examine your mouth, throat, and swallowing abilities, as well as assess your breathing.  A swallow study done under video-fluoroscopy or a modified barium swallow study is often used to view the swallowing function and to determine the best course of treatment.

A number of therapy techniques are used to treat swallowing problems. These include behavioral therapy, dietary changes, medications, and surgery. Behavioral therapy may include managing the patient’s posture to ensure safe swallowing.

Diet changes could mean finding foods of varied consistency that can be swallowed safely. Medications, such as mucolytic agents that thin secretions or anti-acids, can help alleviate swallowing problems. Surgical treatment depends on the etiology of the dysphagia, for example, Zenker’s diverticulum.

The good news is that most types of dysphagia can be treated and cured, in some cases very easily.

Page Last Modified: 02/22/2010
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